Thankful for guest writer Dr. Hallie Thompson, Plant Biologist and Science Policy Consultant.
Balance in networking
When we think about and practice networking, most of us focus on the initiation of new relationships, but there’s more to it than that. Like so many things, it’s about balance. In this case, it’s a balance of initiating new relationships and maintaining existing ones by setting priorities and being persistent.
These tips can help with building new relationships and keeping up long-term connections. Whether we’re living in a world impacted by a global pandemic or back to more regular times, the advice remains the same and can help you build authentic relationships over time.
Conversation is improvisation
Sometimes conversations start slowly. Maybe you talk about the weather, discuss the structure of the event you are attending, or ask how the person is doing. And then perhaps the conversation shifts to other topics. In improvisation, we’re taught to say “yes” when someone begins a scenario as we build a plot of a story together. The way we engage with networking is much the same.
Whatever the other person is talking about, ask questions, be curious, and continue on the plot you are both building together. Don’t be afraid to use humor, when necessary, in a larger group setting! It can often help make others feel at ease and lead you into ever more interesting topics of discussion. When I want to lead the conversation to a more relevant topic, I continue to listen and acknowledge the topics the other person brings up while using those topics to introduce a story or thought I want to share.
Be present, authentic, and kind
I often find that one of the most important skills in networking is the ability to make others feel listened to. And the best way to do this is to actually be interested in what they have to say. Approaching all conversations with genuine curiosity and excitement (a mindset I try to instill before I walk in the door or click on the meeting link) will enable this interaction to feel much more natural.
Also remember that we are all human and that people really do connect with you not in spite of your eccentricities, but because of them. I frequently talk about my odd hobbies and strange habits, and I always make sure I share things that highlight my humanity. Sometimes it is helpful to think through a few odd things that you have dealt with in the past week or a few stories to share as you are walking into a meeting or logging onto a Zoom event.
Networking is more than just traditional networking.
Networking isn’t just going to events that have networking in the event title. A weekly professional call with a friend or small group of friends is networking. Revisiting old relationships that have fallen off is networking. Cold calling or emailing people with questions about their work is networking. Requesting and conducting informational interviews is networking.
Networking also includes the time you spend preparing to network. Think about which events make the most sense to attend. Who will be there? Who can you ask to attend with you? Are there any particular outcomes you would like from interactions you have?
Perhaps the most important part of networking is not the actual activity of meeting new people, but the consistent reflection and follow up that comes after the initial connection. That is most definitely part of what we should consider networking!
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Let’s go back to that moment of initiating conversations. For most people, it’s not a comfortable thing. But it’s important to push through that discomfort and start the conversation. That moment of discomfort will probably pass, and either way, you stand to gain far more than you stand to lose by getting to know another person and letting them get to know you.
This, of course, applies to in-person conversations, cold calls, emails, and all of the many ways to meet new people. Being comfortable with feeling uncomfortable can also be helpful when applying it to public speaking engagements and other types of outreach!
There is only so much we can do with each day, each week, each year. Figure out what is most important for you in connecting with others and make that your priority when deciding when and where to network. Continue reassessing those priorities along the way. This reflection and prioritization process will be key to maintaining a professional network that helps you reach your particular goals.
For me, this sometimes means skipping events that are some of my favorites in favor of a new event where I’ll be able to meet more new people. This aligns with my personal goals because I still want to grow my network in a number of areas through reaching out and connecting with new people.
So, when you are thinking about networking, don’t think about it as a stringent, rule-driven process. Think of it as the organic interaction with others that it is. Think about how much you can make another person feel valued and how much we can all help one another succeed with our individual goals and professional futures!