There’s a secret lurking beneath the surface of all of the conversations had (and missed) at networking events, professional development dinners, parties, and the like.
No one talks about it.
But I’m going to talk about it here – bring it out into the open and demystify the awkwardness of these conversations with strangers. And they will never be the same again.
But before I do, let’s get some things straight, and be sure we’re talking about the same thing when we talk about ‘networking’.
What is networking and why is it important?
Networking is really important whether you’re a business owner or consultant like me or are employed within an organization. And of course, if you’re neither of these but would like to be, then it’s also really important for you as well.
Networking is NOT about selling or getting a job.
It’s about creating and maintaining meaningful, mutually-beneficial, long-term relationships that can create valuable opportunities for business and life. For all parties involved, over time.
So, it’s not about handing out and/or collecting business cards. Or adding contacts on LinkedIn or Facebook.
I’ve built my business via relationships and word-of-mouth referrals. I spent a lot of time and energy connecting with interesting, smart, and generous people and then figuring out ways to help and support them and their success. In the process, they also did the same for me, but never in a tit-for-tat way.
Networking in La-La-Land
The thing is, I built the majority of my network over on the East Coast – I lived and worked in the DC area for 32 years before moving to L.A. a year ago– and expanded to many national and international connections over the years, as well.
Since moving to L.A., I have found it challenging to make many new connections. Between frequent business travel, family commitments, and getting our home situation figured out, my time and energy have been siphoned in other directions.
I simply haven’t been networking enough here in LA. Nowhere near enough.
So, is it any surprise that all my clients are still on the East Coast? I don’t think so…
Now that it’s been a year and my life feels a bit more situated and stable, I’m ready to change that.
Networking does not equal going to events
Networking, if we’re using the definition I wrote above, can include events, but it is definitely not only about going to events, to be sure. There are lots of other ways to network. Some of them include connecting by phone or Skype, meeting in person for coffee or lunch, and sending notes, articles, or emails to people. The best way to meet new people is via a warm introduction from a mutual connection. Another strategy can be joining common-interest groups and/or volunteering.
(To learn three tricks for taking networking from icky to awesome, watch this vlog I recorded about it.)
But going to events can be a great way to quickly meet multiple new people that may already share some common interest or connection with you.
Here is the secret that is lurking at such events…
At a recent morning event I attended in L.A., I was vividly reminded of the secret that’s lurking underneath the surface in pretty much every one of the conversations people have at these types of events. In fact, it was also lurking under the surface of every MISSED conversation that COULD have been had but was never given a chance because this secret blocked us from starting it...
“What is the secret, Halelly?”, you must be saying with baited breath. Am I right?
Ok, here it is.
You know how you feel nervous and awkward about starting a conversation with strangers?
Anxious, awkward, nervous, hesitant, uncertain, reluctant, unsure, iffy…. ??
You do? Me too!
That’s it: EVERYONE feels this way!!
Seriously, I speak and write about networking, and have lots of practice with networking, and regularly proselytize the virtues of networking. And yet, when it comes down to being in the presence of a bunch of strangers and having to strike up a conversation, I get really nervous, even scared.
And because I am in a position to talk to people about what holds them back from networking, I can tell you with utter certainty that pretty much everyone, regardless of how outgoing they are, feels very similarly!
Yes, some people more than others.
But if they feel no hesitation, I almost wonder what’s wrong with them. It would be a little creepy…
It’s NATURAL to wonder…
- How should I strike up a conversation?
- Will I like this person?
- Will this person like me?
- Will it be an awkward and clunky exchange, sputtering like a car that’s due for service, or will the conversation flow and will we feel comfortable talking to each other?
- Will this person end up being a great connection or will it hold little or no potential value?
- Will they think I’m weird? Boring? Snobby? Dumb?
In every potential conversation you strike up with every new person, the same fear lurks in EACH of the parties involved!
The secret, when unleashed, brings amazing benefits
When we unleash this secret, we can turn it from a hindrance to a helpful mechanism. Here are some of the benefits we can gain when we harness the power of the secret for good:
The secret, unleashed, creates solidarity. When we recognize that we’re not alone in the awkwardness, uncertainty and anxiety of networking conversations, our fear is reduced. What’s the old saying, “misery loves company”? Nah, that’s not exactly it. It’s just a feeling of solidarity and connectedness, and also reduced shame about feeling awkward – it’s not you. It’s EVERYONE.
The secret, unleashed, reduces anxiety for our conversation partner. By being first to strike a conversation we’re actually relieving the other person from having to be the first to start. We reduce their anxiety, and now both of us are less nervous and awkward.
But wait, there’s more! ;)
The secret, unleashed, gives us a point of commonality. By recognizing this common element under the surface, we come into the conversation as ALREADY having something in common. In fact, if you want bonus vulnerability and transparency points (read more about that here and here, and listen here and here), why not try making the awkwardness the topic of conversation? How meta.
The secret, unleashed, makes us less self-critical. By focusing on the other person and trying to make them feel less awkward, we remove our own self-critical focus from ourselves and become other-directed. We move from a judging mode to a curious mode, from a critical mode to a helpful mode.
The secret, unleashed, makes us more interesting. When we have conversations in this curious (rather than judging) mode, we become instantly more interesting to our conversation partner. We are able to focus on them and find what’s neat or unusual, cool or weird, or fascinating, about THEM. And we are able to get the conversation started. And maybe even flowing. (Watch me describe this idea of becoming a 'fascination detective' on this vlog.)
The secret, unleashed, is freeing. Even if our conversation doesn’t flow, or we don’t feel a chemistry with this person, or we don’t really want to keep talking to them for a long time, it’s okay. Because it’s all about being open and exploring. We are free to move on, to meet other people, and to find new opportunities in more conversations.
Because we’re no longer afraid of the secret – we know it and we have unleashed its positive powers. And we can harness them to enable better conversations, instead of hinder. Curious, open, interested and interesting conversations.
“By unleashing the secret of networking, we enable—rather than hinder—better conversations!”
[Ooh – that's a TWEETABLE! Click to tweet this now!]
That may lead to keeping in touch, and building and maintaining long-term, mutually-beneficial relationships. Or, as we like to call it in one word: networking.
Have you also experienced this ‘secret’ and its effects? Have you found effective ways to unleash it? Or has it gotten in your way as an obstacle? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!
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