I spent the past month doing something most people dread: networking.
As an introvert, the month-long challenge to work my way up to being a superconnector was both a painfully difficult and surprisingly rewarding experience.
During the first week of the challenge, I eased into networking by inviting coworkers to lunch. This low-pressure situation promised to help us practice our conversation skills. I asked my coworker Rose to invite another colleague, David, to join us for lunch–and on the walk to our lunch spot I felt very deeply the true awkwardness of this scenario.
I think we were all aware of the social connotation when someone asks you to lunch. One can’t help but wonder, what’s the motivation here, what’s the angle? So as we sat down to eat, I wanted to dispel any fears of a hidden agenda. Our networking lunch was simply an occasion to get out of the office, get to know each other better. After brushing the initial awkwardness aside, we enjoyed a delicious family-style meal of samosas, saag paneer, chicken tikka masala, lamb korma, and naan. We ate like kings, kvetched like yentas, and it was great.
“Be you, be real,” Judy Robinett, author of How to Be a Power Connector: The 5+50+100 Rule, suggested during our live chat. “Connections happen on a personal level first. You want folks with a good head, good heart, and good gut.”
Cynthia Than, a writer and consultant for social networking app Linkr who participated in this month’s challenge, believes that going to group lunches or networking events with someone you already know is extremely helpful since the connector can facilitate an introduction or simply create a more relaxed environment for meeting strangers.
During the second week, I practiced reconnecting with old friends by providing them with something of value. I reconnected with a former editor and friend from my days at Patch and introduced him to a Fast Company colleague who is working on a project I thought he could help with. Unfortunately, I never heard back from him.
There are a few reasons this challenge should help on the road to becoming better networkers. For one thing, we already know the people we’re reconnecting with, so the time investment is minimal and they already (hopefully) trust us.
Instead of asking our connections for help, we chose to share knowledge or resources that could benefit them. To be honest, I don’t know if my attempt at reconnecting was helpful to my old friend or my coworker. But I did end up taking something away from the experience. I took a step toward what makes a superconnector super, which is honing relationships that interest us beyond professional gain.
This was my favorite week of the challenge–I attended a knitting Meetup. I loved this kind of networking because the conversation was low-pressure and I didn’t feel the need to constantly pitch in to the conversation—it ebbed and flowed very naturally, and the event was short and sweet—two hours flew by in no time.
To take full advantage of these kinds of events, Robinett suggests you share your personal story and ask what she calls the two golden questions: “What other ideas do you have for me?” and “Who else do you know I should talk to?”
The month-long challenge culminated with the most daunting task of all: networking at an industry event. Despite my weeks of gearing up, I still didn’t end up feeling comfortable.
“If you feel icky after networking, you’re in the wrong room,” Robinett explains. “I think 90% of events are not helpful.”
Instead, Robinett says it’s important to attend the right events. “Think about who you need to know and how you can meet them.”
Fast Company contributor Ximena Vengoechea explains another issue with networking events well in her article about building authentic relationships. Of networking events, she says, “So many people are eager to hand you a business card instead of a conversation.”
She says that in the formal settings of networking events, the pressure of exchanging information can make it hard for two strangers to really connect.
I felt that at my industry networking event. In fact, the moderator of the event even suggested in her pre-event email that attendees bring plenty of business cards. It felt like an out-of-touch and unnatural way of making meaningful connections.
This kind of networking event just didn’t work for me–it was too large and impersonal for me to make a real connection with anyone, and the mad dash to make as many connections as possible threw me off. While I had built up enough confidence throughout the month to strike up a conversation or two, the connections I made felt too inauthentic to hold my attention, and so I simply stopped.
During our live chat discussion, Robinett offered lots of helpful tips for those of us trying to get more comfortable with networking.
When you want to connect for a job: “Write on a piece of paper ‘Victory Log,’ and write down 50 things you are proud you have achieved and read it daily.”
When you don’t know whom to reach out to: “Map out your current network of at least 50 folks. This will help you see connections you hadn’t thought of before.”
On overcoming the fear of “stranger danger”: “Smile, say hello, offer a compliment, or ask a question. If you take little actions, you soon learn that most people will help you!”
On asking for help: “A wonderful three-word sentence that people love is: please help me. . . . You can start with simple asks–some advice, trends–which builds the relationship but also gives you experience. You’ll find if you just ask, your fear will go away.”
This challenge taught me a lot, and it changed my perspective quite a bit. I initially thought I would come out of this challenge a pro at networking events, but I realize now that goal misses the point entirely.
Instead, the challenge forced me to go outside my comfort zone and interact with new people. It helped me realize that making a few solid, quality connections is more important than knowing everyone in the room. I was able to get over the stigma that introverts just can’t network–in fact, we’re great at networking because, for the most part, we really know how to listen.
I feel more empowered now to connect with new people on a personal level and build relationships organically by balancing the give and take.
Check out the transcript for more valuable insights on making authentic connections.