Anti-Networking: Learning How to Really Connect
I was recently at a business social event when the host interrupted casual chit-chat over canapés to conduct 30 minutes of structured networking. At the mention of the word ‘networking,’ the whole crowd cringed. A few individuals retreated into hiding. Those that remained were instructed to follow the host’s three minute, three-step networking plan. 1- Find people in your industry. 2- Provide your credentials (MBA pedigree, fancy job title, net worth). 3-State what you are looking for. Rinse and repeat.
Structure is something I try to avoid in my life. However, I mustered my courage to brave the hornet’s nest of eager faces pushing freshly minted business cards. As a rebellious rule breaker, I decided to forgo the three-step plan and chat with a finance professional (not in my industry) about wine (not on the approved topic list). I was soon reprimanded.
“You are networking wrong!” said the host. “Now quick-spit out your business school.”
I did spit, but the name of my university never came out. I didn’t understand what was wrong with connecting with someone over an interesting hobby. Does everything have to lead to a business deal right away? My best connections always happened by engaging in conversations with no formal agenda except allowing myself to be honestly intrigued by what another person is saying. Case in point: “wrong networking” over wine eventually landed a friend of mine a job interview.
I decided that we needed a new approach for human connection. This ‘networking’ stuff is bad for our reputation as connectors. It is high time for a new three-step plan.
Step 1: See the Potential in Everyone
Malcom Gladwell’s best selling book, The Tipping Point, speaks to the unique traits of a connector, or in other ‘cringe’ terms, a master networker. He writes, “…they don’t see the same world that the rest of us see. They see possibility, and while most of us are busily choosing whom we would like to know, and rejecting the people who don’t look right, or who live out near the airport, or whom we haven’t seen in sixty-five years, Lois and Roger like them all.”
While working in fashion I once judged everyone by what they wore and who they knew. Putting people in pre-determined boxes may be an easy way to sort through a networking game, but it really limits connections in your life. Instead of rich diversity you will live in a vanilla bubble, unaware of colorful opportunity around you. Everyone has a story, everyone has at least one interesting friend, and everyone has something to offer either to you or someone you know. Perhaps it’s a new recipe. Perhaps it’s a date for your cousin to the next gallery opening. Perhaps it’s a joke about structured networking.
A “networking hater” friend of mind was skeptical of turning into a Tipping Point Connector. She feared leaping out of her comfortable vanilla bubble. “How can I talk to someone from a different bubble? We will have nothing in common!”
But there is always something in common to connect on. My grandfather once told me, “My dear, if you cannot possibly think of any mutual interests, you can always talk about the weather.” Adjectives for San Francisco fog has indeed been the ice breaker for many a conversation. And when in doubt, just start asking questions.
Step 2: Actively Listen, Without an Agenda.
What most networking events do wrong is that they promote “getting something” from the event. This means that we don’t really care about the other person or the value they have, but rather what they can do for us. In three minutes.
Before I went on my crazy interview road trip, I was a repeat offender of partial listening. I never gave anyone my full attention as my mind was too busy thinking about my response or what I wanted to ensure we covered. I realized I was missing half of our conversation; I was too busy being stuck inside my own head. People would leave me alone with my glass of wine shaking their heads in disgust thinking, “She didn’t listen to me at all…she’s obviously full of herself.” Ahem.
While on the road I had to listen. There was no other way to get the stories I was passionately trying to uncover. Interestingly, I didn’t make out interview questions for all the women I met. I just let them talk. My eyes locked with their eyes and my heart held onto every word they said. There were times I even held their hands. And then, an amazing thing happened. They trusted me, a gasoline smelling road trip stranger, as audience that that cared about them. They went beyond weather topics and into depths of their own past. They told me things they had not even told their own family. Now I do not think that death and extra-marital affairs are common topics for business socials, but if you really listen you may be surprised on what your conversation partner will tell you. For some reason I know company sales before they are released, and funding deals before they are secured. If only I believed in insider trading….
Step 3: Follow Up: Don’t Let Your Connection Be a One-Night Stand
How many times do you go to an event, meet someone amazing, plan to grab lunch to talk shop…..and then you never hear from then again? You feel used, confused, and doubt the validity of the connection. “Did they really like me at all…or was it just in the heat of the hors d’oeuvres tray?”
Don’t have one-night stands. If it is up to you to follow up, then do. And within three days (just like the dating rules tell us). The longer you wait, the more awkward the email or phone call becomes. And then when you see the person at a coffee shop you will hide behind your newspaper, too embarrassed that you dropped the ball. Like the aftermath of any one-night stand, the relationship will be hard to repair.
As we sashay through holiday parties and ring in the New Year, let’s listen and connect with people around us. You never know where it may lead; a new biking buddy, a new client, or a new person to pull under the mistletoe. After all, we never know where the conversation may take us…..