“Networking”. It’s hard to have a conversation or read an article about how to get ahead in business, how to find a new job, even how to get a child into a prestigious kindergarten (!), without the subject of professional networking being raised. We’re told that career success is built on professional networking which is fine unless you’re someone that considers the time and effort networking takes to be about as enjoyable as going to the dentist or having dinner with relatives you really don’t like. In fact, this aversion is similar to that which most people have to cold-calling: “I hate it and I’m not good at it.”
Of course, it’s possible that the reason you dislike networking is precisely because you haven’t been very good at it and the reason you haven’t been very good at it is simply because you dislike it. There is a component of developing relationships with others solely to make “connections” seems insincere and perhaps even a little mercenary. We get it. And we don’t necessarily disagree. However, we do believe that you’ll always hate networking and be ineffective at it if you view it only in those terms.
Although it may seem easier said than done, the key to making professional networking feel less burdensome is to simply stop treating it as some sort of task you don’t want to do. If you really think about it, professional networking isn’t much different than any other form of socializing. And make no mistake, networking is socializing, albeit with a career-oriented twist.
Even if you are an introvert or just don’t like to talk to strangers, you surely have people in your life with whom you are comfortable communicating. Start your networking efforts with them. This allows you to “practice” talking to others in a professional context. Even better, professional networking with people you know will can lead to introductions to people you don’t. If you have a mutual connection with a stranger, you’re likely to feel more comfortable approaching them and they’re more likely to be receptive to your outreach.
As you anticipate (dread?) your first meeting with a new contact or attendance at a social or professional gathering at which you know you’ll be “forced” to network, think about what you want to accomplish if you meet someone who might be helpful to your career progress. Come up with a “script” that will fit the occasion or the person you expect to meet. Rehearse. No, really, rehearse. Since this is your career we’re talking about, you should treat it like it’s important to you, no?
We know that it’s often difficult to break the ice once you’ve been introduced to someone new. The thing to remember is that everyone is interesting in their own way and almost always willing to tell their story. Ask questions appropriate under the circumstances of your meeting. Try to connect on a topic of conversation with which you are comfortable. Ask questions. Oh, and listen rather than focus on what your follow up question or comment is going to be. It doesn’t pay to be clever if it makes you seem inconsiderate instead.
There is something you can do daily to improve your networking skills: Talk to strangers. Store cashiers, parking lot attendants, “the man on the street.” Engage. It’s a great way to work on your communication skills in a no-pressure, no-risk environment. Every person you meet provides you the opportunity to learn something new about others, the world around you and yourself.
Professional networking: The socially acceptable career version of “friends with benefits”.