Networking: How to stop dreading it, and start enjoying it (really!) – Part One

When it comes to NETWORKING there are many, many tips and tricks. However, if you don’t start with this ONE, then none of the rest will make a difference.

I know you dread networking. You only do it when you have to and even then, you do it grudgingly.

I know that, for you, networking is just a long four-letter word.

I know this for two reasons.  First, I don’t know many people who actually enjoy networking. Second, until I realized my mistake, this is exactly how I felt too. I viewed networking as a necessary evil – I would show up but not really participate.

So, what was my mistake? I had been seeing networking as a chore, rather than treating it as an opportunity.

There are endless articles and cheat sheets that cover networking, but where most of them fail is that they rarely cover the main problem most of us have with networking, and that is our attitude toward it.

Attitude is everything and the simple act of turning a negative into a positive is hugely powerful. Not only will you stop dreading networking, you might even start to enjoy it (really!). Why? Because, viewed in the right light networking is an incredibly useful tool.  Done well, it can be used for a variety of reasons: to learn about new trends in your area, to research new avenues, to test out a new idea or thought, and, yes, to expand your network.

Easy for me to say, right? ‘But’, I hear you say, ‘how exactly do I do that?’

The ‘trick’ is to embrace networking as a form of exploration, a way to see what you can uncover and discover about others, their work and their interests (though not in a creepy or intense way).

Think of it this way: those short interactions/conversations allow you to decide if you’d like to delve deeper, learn more. ‘Networking’ is just the tip of the relationship-building iceberg. When you begin a conversation with someone you have no idea where it will lead, what hidden depths may (or may not) be revealed.

Pain Points into Gain Points

The reason this attitude adjustment works is because it automatically combats some of the things that we dread about networking, for instance:

  • Having dull conversations dominated by pointless small talk
  • The awkwardness of approaching people we don’t know
  • The feeling that we aren’t that interesting, or have little to contribute
  • The entire exercise feels cheesy, false or forced
  • It’s a huge waste of time

Consciously deciding that networking is an opportunity, and not a chore, means turning these pain points into gain points (that sounds much cheesier that it’s meant to, so sorry.)  Rhyming aside, here’s how it works:

Having dull conversations dominated by pointless small talk

Be curious! Approaching any conversation as an opportunity to discover new people, ideas or points of view, allows you to direct the conversation.  Ask open-ended questions (they are much more conversational than yes/no questions), show interest, ask follow-up questions. The advantages to this approach are that:

  • You can come up with the questions before you get to the event, which means you have time to be creative and devise questions that can open different avenues of conversation
  • People love talking about themselves, which takes the pressure off you
  • You can take the conversation wherever you would like (within reason)
  • You will come across as friendly, engaged and interested…even if you aren’t feeling that way

The awkwardness of approaching people we don’t know

Shyness is a huge stumbling block for many of us when it comes to attending events.  Our new friend, curiosity, is a great way to overcome this.  If you view all your conversations as a way to learn about other people, it takes the pressure off you.  Approach your conversations as a reporter would, instead of thinking ‘why would they want to talk to me?’ turn it around and think ‘what can learn about them?’.

The feeling that we aren’t that interesting, or have little to contribute

This is one I hear a lot from clients.  We worry that we have nothing interesting to say, nothing noteworthy to contribute to the conversation. This is generally not the case but it is how we feel, and nerves only make it worse.

The best way to combat this one? You guessed it…be the person asking the questions! It takes the pressure off you and will generally result in a back and forth conversation that flows more easily.

The entire exercise feels cheesy, false or forced

I realise that I’m starting to sound like a broken record, however…if you treat networking as an opportunity and approach it with a sense of curiosity, then the exercise takes on a genuine and engaged feel.  This is when connections start to develop and the spark of mutually-beneficial relationships are lit.  Of course, it doesn’t guarantee that every conversation you have will be filled with witty repartee but it does give you a fighting chance!

It’s a huge waste of time

Here’s the thing, you can’t know that in advance. You have absolutely no idea who you might meet, what interests or expertise they might have, who they might bring with them, or who they might know.

Yes, sometimes we attend events, chat to many people and come away without wanting to follow-up any of the conversations but that is actually quite rare.  Generally, there will be at least one person you would like to talk to and follow-up with after the event.

My time has not been wasted if I come away with one new or renewed connection.

So yes, there are many tips that will improve your networking skills, however there is only one change that will improve your ability to networking effectively and that’s your attitude toward it. Until you alter that, all the skills in the world won’t help.

In Part 2 of this mini-series, I’ll share my top 12 tips for improving your networking experience.

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