I often speak to groups about networking. People think I have a success secret on it. But I’ll tell you the same thing I tell them: I don’t like networking.
If networking means an attempt to increase my address book contacts by learning what people do for a living, while I try to figure out how they can help me, then I want no part of it. What I prefer, is this: making new friends while discovering their passions as I figure out how I can help them. Is that networking? Sure. But many people have a bad taste for the concept because it's often pursued in the first manner. And many people try to cram it in only when a new job or customer is needed. When that doesn't yield results, they believe they are no good at networking.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
With a perspective shift, anyone can become a better networker. In fact, most people could become great if they approached it with a different attitude. What follows are some key ideas I've used in everyday life that have helped me tremendously. But before we start, let’s ditch the word networking. For many, that label carries negative connotations. I like to use the word “connecting” instead. Here goes:
Too many people have the notion that an individual must be Mr. or Ms. Personality to be a great connector. Not true. You simply need to "be yourself." Yes, that phrase gets used so much it has become cliche, but it's popular for a reason: it's true.
When I became co-owner of a previous software consulting firm at 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. Over time I realized that all I had accomplished by donning that business-professional mask, was to come off stiff and boring. Once I let the real me shine through, a person who likes to talk about everyday life and passions, with a smidgeon of business thrown in, finding and winning business 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.
Stop seeing connecting as a chore and have fun with it instead. Use your face time with others to discover their passions. 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? If you guessed "their jobs," you are correct. Yet, many people bombard others with a variation of this question: “What do you do for a living?” I haven't asked anyone that question in a long, long time. There's a good reason why.
When you meet someone new, you want them to feel energized after they walk away from your 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 make friends. So how do you tap into the positive emotions of another individual? Ask what the person does for fun.
Most people's eyes spark when asked this question. After you ask, let the conversation unfold. A second word of caution: don't ask this question first thing when meeting someone or it may come off as strange. Instead, start with widely accepted questions that get conversations going, like asking where a person is from or what brought him to the area. Learning what people's passions are is way more fun than learning what they do for a living. And it's often easier to remember that passion, versus a job title, the next time you see the person.
Make Your Goal, “How do I help others?”
If you practice this regularly, at some point you’ll look back over your life to realize that your path to success was cleared of obstacles by the people you once helped. One of the best ways you can help others, is to connect them with like-minded souls. If you meet a person who loves to fish, offer to connect him with that avid fisher you know. If a person wants to pursue photography, then introduce her to a knowledgable friend who can offer advice.
This small action doesn't take much time, but yields big results. And I've never met anyone who didn't enjoy being connected to like-minded individuals.
You may think 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 never-ending to-do list. Inside, we may feel approachable, but aging and gravity conspire against us with a tendency over time to convert our youthful faces from angelic to dour. To see an example of this, the next time you are stopped at a traffic light, look at the person in the car next to you. Most of the time you will glimpse that person's resting face. Many of these drivers, caught unaware, don't look approachable at all.
The best way to combat an ornery resting face, is to smile. Smile big and smile often.
Discover What Works for You
One piece of advice that stops some people in their connection efforts, is the recommendation to remember names better. This is good advice, but not everyone can make it work. Many people have issues with name recall so they label themselves as poor connectors since they believe great connectors are good with names. Learn how to work around this, or any other connection challenge.
If you have trouble with name recall, you may be tempted to avoid someone you met recently when you see her again somewhere else, simply because you can't remember the name. Don't do it.
The other individual probably doesn’t recall your name either and is considering the same thing: to avoid you. Be brave and go up to the person. Remind her where you met and say your name, then ask her to refresh your memory with her name. The person will respect you for it and admire your effort to reconnect. And it's more likely, with this reminder, that you’ll remember the name the next time you run into the person.
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 discover what works best for you.
It's an amazing world out there full of wonderful people. Don't isolate yourself because networking has never been a strength. Go out and connect instead. The rewards are great.