I have often said that I have some of my best ideas when I am talking with others. This seemed to be in effect this week when I was involved in the online Twitter chat #careerchat. As part of the conversation about networking I said,
“Sometimes we overthink networking, too. Engaging with people is simply/or should be, part of your life. #careerchat”
For whatever reason, this message resonated with many people in the chat and beyond. I was re-tweeted many times and it got me thinking about not only networking, but the host of other tasks we over complicate in our lives.
The fact is, we often make simple things complicated in our lives. During my college career, I was required to take a course, several actually, in Interpersonal Communications i.e. talking to one another. It sought to apply psychological science to the very human act of conversation. We even had these exercises called “dyadic encounters” where we had to converse with a student partner and notice all sorts of things about the conversation, beyond what was actually discussed.
Now sure, there is some benefit to studying things scientifically, but we can easily take this to ludicrous extremes. We can spend so much time analyzing something that we begin to ignore the very reason why we were doing it in the first place. This is certainly true with networking. I see people worry so much about connecting with X number of people or, even worse, X number of the “right” people that they ignore, if not offend those around them. For them, networking quickly becomes a game of numbers rather than a process of growth.
Networking, and other career-building efforts, should be an integral part of your life, not something you strap onto the side. Instead of worrying about numbers or specific people, learn to engage others, all others, in conversation. If you can do this with any regularity, you will find that the quantity and the quality of the people you meet will take care of itself. This doesn’t mean you don’t have goals of people you would like to meet and network with, only that this isn’t the driving force behind your networking.
We have all met people who are consumed with networking as a task. They dash from group to group, interrupt the conversation to hand out their business card and then dart away to the next group. How do you feel when someone does this? I know that I barely remember these people, beyond the fact that they annoyed me in some way. When people network in this way, they are showing what they truly believe — “this is all about me!” Rather selfish of them, if you think about it. In many ways, they are insuring that their networking efforts will fail. For me, without conversation, there is no networking, there is no benefit.
So, if you are headed to a networking event, or better an event where you will find networking opportunities, what should you do? First, walk in, pick up a beverage and join in the first conversation you meet. Listen first to gain the tone and topic of the conversation. Introduce yourself — by name, not some 30 second elevator speech — and simply converse. If this group of people isn’t discussing topics of interest to you, excuse yourself politely and join another conversation. Work your way around the room in this fashion. If you find one particular conversation that deeply interests you, don’t be afraid to stay there. Your deeper conversation with these people will far outweigh lighter conversations with many others. You are looking for those connections, those relationships that most interest you, not some fixed number of people.
If you want to know if you are networking in a way that I find most useful, check your own attitude. Are you enjoying yourself? Are you having interesting conversations? Are you meeting interesting people? This is how I know I have had a successful event. On the other hand, if you are worried because you didn’t hand out enough business cards — or get enough business cards — there might be a problem. Did you leave the event early because you had handed out all your cards? Are you unable to remember people’s names or anything you talked about during the evening? This is a clear sign of “hit and run” networking and you might want to adjust your methods.
Anything in life can be over-complicated if we let it. We constantly need to be evaluating how we are engaging with the world around us and not let the method of an activity subsume the value of the activity. Think beyond hard numbers — like business cards and resumes — and start thinking more about engaging with those around you. I think you will find that conversations are far more interesting and far more beneficial.