Picture this: You’re at a friend’s birthday party and chatting with a new acquaintance. As the conversation goes on, you discover they’re in a senior-level position at your dream company. You know it’s obnoxious to immediately start selling them on your qualifications and career history, but you also really, really want to connect with them professionally. What should you do?
We all know networking is essential to position ourselves for future career opportunities. But for a lot of us, it still feels weird to do, especially when you’re not at an explicitly networking-oriented event. You don’t want to be the jerk rattling off your 60-second elevator pitch to a perfect stranger. At the same time, you don’t want to miss an opportunity to connect with someone who could be helpful to your career.
The good news: Since networking is ideally about forming genuine relationships, a social gathering can be the perfect place to make those connections.
“When you meet someone at a nonnetworking event, it’s likely that they’ll be more relaxed, so it can actually be better than networking in a formal setting,” says career consultant and professional branding strategist Latesha Byrd. “Take advantage of that and really get to know the person you’re speaking with, and not just about their work.”
Play your cards right with these tips to network at a nonnetworking event—without putting a damper on what’s supposed to be a fun social experience for others.
Listen more than you talk
Your first step in nonnetworking is to actually pay attention to what the other person is talking about. Instead of reciting your most impressive résumé bullet points in your head, stay in the moment and ask questions about them.
Most people end up talking about their work at social gatherings anyway, so allow the conversation to naturally segue into career territory. Even then, target your questions toward the individual rather than their industry or company. Ask about how they got into the field, what they like and dislike about it, and if there are any current trends they’re keeping an eye on.
Not only will this show that you’re genuinely interested, but you get the chance to flex your industry knowledge without being superobvious.
Focus on building a relationship
Don’t just talk about work, either. “It’s great to find common ground, so look for commonalities you share, whether it’s a personal hobby or maybe you both really value time with family,” Byrd explains. “Find those things to connect on. People love talking about their children or pets, so build rapport around that.”
If you want to go a step further, take a few minutes after the conversation to make a note of anything unique for future reference. When you follow up or see the person again, briefly mention one of the highlights you talked about previously. Remembering small details can help you make a good impression.
Prioritize quality over quantity
You might think you need to work the room to strengthen your chances of gaining valuable contacts, but Muse career coach Heather Yurovsky advises having in-depth conversations with just a few people to get started.
“Talk with one or two people and focus on making a deeper connection,” Yurovsky says. “Quality over quantity should always be the goal.” When it comes to setting yourself up for future opportunities, one really meaningful conversation is better than 10 superficial exchanges.
Think of what you can offer
To avoid giving off too much of a “me, me, me” vibe, don’t ask for any big favors from a new person right away.
“It’s best to steer clear of any major asks during your first encounter,” Yurovsky cautions. “Don’t focus immediately on getting them to look at your résumé, otherwise it will feel forced and unnatural.”
Rather than focus on what another person can do for you, think of how you can be a resource as well. It doesn’t have to be anything major, but even giving recommendations for a good restaurant or dentist in the area can show you’re not just talking to them for your own personal or professional gain.
Suggest a casual way to keep in touch
If you’re meeting someone for the first time in a casual setting, it could feel a bit stuffy to whip out your business card at the end of a conversation. Instead, ask if it’s okay to exchange phone numbers or social media info.
Wait a few days, then reach out with a quick text or DM saying how nice it was to meet them and that you’d love to take them out for coffee or lunch to continue the conversation. Now is a good time to invite them to connect on LinkedIn if they have a profile. As you build the relationship, eventually you can feel more comfortable inviting them to take a look at your website or portfolio or asking them to make an intro to other professional contacts.
Bottom line: Networking in a casual setting doesn’t have to feel gross. As long as you remember these key points for your next social gathering, you’ll not only set yourself up for some promising future opportunities—you might just make a new friend or mentor, too.