Connected for Life

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I am often asked to speak about networking. People seem to think I have some secret. Truth is, I don’t. I’ll tell you the same thing I tell those audiences: I don’t care for networking.

If the concept means an attempt to build my contact list by having boring business conversations while I try to figure out what another person can do for me, then networking is not for me. What I do like is this: making new friends while learning their passions as I figure out how I can help them. Is that networking? Sure. But many people have a bad taste for networking because they pursue it the other way. Or they try to cram it in only when they need something, then declare they are horrible at it after they fail.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

With a slight perspective shift, anyone can become a better networker. In fact, most people could become great if they simply approached it with a fresh attitude. Below are some key ideas I’ve incorporated into my everyday routine over the last ten years. But before we begin, let’s ditch the “networking” moniker. The word sounds too calculating, too sterile. Let’s use “connecting” instead. Here goes:

Be Authentic

Too many people have the notion one must be Mr. or Ms. Personality to be a great connector. Not true. You simply need to be yourself. Yes, that phrase gets bandied about a lot, but it’s said for a reason: it works.

When I became executive vice president and co-owner of a software consulting firm at the age of 29, I tried to imitate what I thought was a “business professional.” I wore suits often, talked a lot of business, and, in short, attempted to be someone I wasn’t. After a while, I realized all I had accomplished by wearing that “mask” was to come off stiff and boring. Once I let the real me come out in business settings, finding and winning business suddenly became much easier.

As you go through life meeting and interacting with people, stop trying to act like what you think makes a great business professional, and bring to your connection activities whatever makes you a great human being.

Have Fun and Interact

Stop seeing connecting as a chore. Have fun with it. How? Use your face time with others to discover what they are passionate about. Most people have hobbies or activities they love. Get them talking about those things. I’ll give you an easy way to do that, but first, a word of caution. Guess what a significant number of people in this world are NOT passionate about? Their jobs. Yet, many people bombard others with this question: “What do you do for a living?”

When you meet someone new, you want them to feel good after they walk away from the interaction. If you ask the livelihood question of someone who doesn’t care for his or her job, you risk invoking a negative emotion, something you don’t want associated with you if your goal is to win friends. So how do you tap into the positive emotions of another individual? Ask what the person does for fun, then watch the smile come. Notice how the eyes begin to sparkle. Inside, the person thinks: someone wants to know about me. Then sit back and enjoy the conversation as it unfolds.

Two notes: One, don’t lead off with this question as it sounds from left-field if you ask it first. Ensure you have a list of questions to ask people, ones that will put them at ease through smooth conversation. Perhaps, you meet someone at a wedding. Ask them, “How do you know the groom/bride?” Other good questions are, “Where are you from?” or “How did you end up in this city?”

Two, ensure you don’t accidentally deflate the person when he or she shares a passion with you. Saying, “I hate to fish,” is not the appropriate response to someone who has told you he loves to fish. Whether or not you like to fish is irrelevant. Even if you don’t, I bet you know someone who does. The right response would sound like this: “My brother loves to fish. He goes to Smith Mountain Lake all the time. Where do you go?” Here, you’ve validated what the person said and invited him to tell more.

Make Your Goal, “How do I help others?”

If you practice this, at some point in the future you’ll look back over your life to realize your path to success was cleared of obstacles by the people you helped. One of the best ways you can help others, is to connect them with like-minded people. If you meet a person who loves to paint, but doesn’t think she’s that good, offer to connect her with that painting instructor you met a year ago. Does the person want to pursue photography? Introduce him to a knowledgable friend who can offer advice. 

This small action produces big dividends.

Be Approachable

You may believe you are approachable, but are you really? Be aware of your resting face. This is the expression your face carries when you are not engaged in conversation or you’re simply thinking about that looming to-do list. Inside, we may feel approachable, but aging and gravity conspire against us and have the tendency to convert our youthful faces from angelic to at-large-serial-killer.

The best way to combat an ornery resting face is to smile. Smile large and smile often. For more thoughts on this, read Smile and the World Smiles With You

Figure Out What Works for You

We get lots of advice from others, much of it well-meaning, but I’ll tell you what I tell my writing students when we talk about the feedback they’ll invariably receive on their work: eat the fruit and spit out the seeds, meaning, take what works for you and discard the rest.

One piece of advice that stops many people in their networking efforts, is the recommendation to remember names. This is good advice, but not everyone can implement it as many people have true issues with name recall. Then they label themselves as poor networkers instead of trying to discover ways around it.

If you are bad with name recall, you may be tempted to avoid someone you met recently if you can’t remember their name. Guess what? The other individual probably doesn’t recall your name either and is considering the same thing: to avoid you.

Don’t do it.

Be brave and go up to the person. Remind him where you met and say your name, then admit you don’t recall his name. The person will respect you for it and it’s more likely you’ll remember the name the next time you see him.

As an aside, I believe part of the problem individuals have with remembering names, comes from the fact they never learned the other person's name in the first place. Often we concentrate so much on how we say our own name, as well as how firm our handshake is and the image we present, that we don’t even hear the other person say her name. Relax from now on when meeting someone new and listen when she says her name.

But the point is, don’t let conventional advice that doesn’t work well for you stop you from becoming the great connector you are meant to be. Become unconventional. Experiment to figure out what works for you.

It's a big, wonderful world out there. Don't cordon yourself off; go out and connect. The rewards are great.