I hate networking. I hate the image it conjures. I hate being forced to do it.
I know. There’s a lot of hate there, then I realized I was misusing the word. Hate was too strong a word; I was uncomfortable with the idea of networking.
When I first heard the word “networking”, it was associated with multi-level marketing.
“Join us. Earn money while studying. Supplement your income. Be financially worry free – all that just by growing your network!” To be fair, I did get sucked into it. Thankfully, it was only once but once was enough.
That early experience clouded my understanding of networking. I thought networking involved taking advantage of everyone you know. What else would you call trying to reconnect with someone you used to know back in high school or have a only met once in order to sell them something or pressure them with promises of instant wealth – if they would just join your network?
Living in different countries forced me to gingerly step out of my shell. I joined Toastmasters in Boston, 3 clubs at once, until I whittled them down to 2. The organization wasn’t that strange since our Debate Varsity patterned itself after Toastmasters. In a sense, it was still familiar terrain for me.
Fast forward to last week. I attended a workshop. I met a few people, managed to speak more than hi and hello. I even had a long conversation with someone. Then, I attended a Networking for New Members and I was uncomfortable the entire time. Good thing I had my camera with me and I used that to avoid talking to too many people. I attended another workshop. Met more people. This time, I set up a time for tea.
Last Tuesday, my sluggish brain clicked when I was listening to the speaker, Susan Vaughn, at the PrimeTime-sponsored “Changing Career or Just Finding your Next Opportunity” event. I had been networking without consciously doing it. Hah!
Based on what I learned from Susan and from my introspection, below are my cobbled steps to meeting people at a networking event:
Be the First to Say Hello. Events are nerve-wracking for some people and it shows. Whenever I see someone hovering or looking lost, I’m the first to say hi. That breaks the ice.
Be Genuinely Interested in People. I can usually tell if a person is merely asking questions for the sake of asking questions. Their eyes shift. They look at their watches or their phones. They make agreeing sounds, such as “uhuh”, “yep”, “ok”. Listen and focus your attention. I found similarities with some of the ladies I met because I asked probing questions.
Stop Thinking People are a Means to an End. As expat spouses on dependent passes in Singapore, most of the people I met were people looking for a job like me. I was comfortable mingling because I knew I didn’t have something people wanted from me nor I from them. That eliminated the awkwardness and made it easier getting to know people.
Offer to Help. I enjoy taking photos. When I attended the event, I asked the organizers if I could take photos for my blog and I could share the photos with them so they could use it in their website. They all agreed. If you have a skill you can share, volunteer.
Connect them to Someone Else. I’m good at introducing people to others. When I meet someone and they tell me what they’re doing or if I find their LinkedIn account and read what they do, I try to connect them to others whom they can work with. There’s no immediate benefit for me except the gratification derived from knowing that I was able to help someone. No, I don’t hold it over their head either. If you help, you must do so without expectations. That will eliminate the disappointment in case they don’t return the favor.
I still don’t like the word networking although now that I think about it, everyone has been doing it for years. We’ve been adding friends of friends on Facebook, connections of connections in LinkedIn, and following Twitter feeds of someone we barely know, among others.
We’re all connected on some social or technological level, why not take the next step and make it personal?