I’ve been to enough networking events now to know that they’re usually a matter of handing out numerous business cards at breakfast meetings, or making hundreds of connections on LinkedIn. In other words: quantity rather than quality.
Maybe I’m missing the point, but I’m highly unlikely to give business to someone that I spoke to for five minutes over soggy toast and overcooked eggs, or buy business insurance from someone who sends me an unsolicited message on LinkedIn.
So, why are we so fixated on making these inferior connections with all and sundry? Is it because of fear?
Fear of missing out (or FOMO as it’s affectionately known by the ‘young’ people)?
Fear of being judged as unprofessional, uninteresting or unworthy?
Fear of losing out on a potential opportunity?
It somehow seems like speed dating to me – a process designed to encourage us to meet a lot of new people in a short space of time, but lacking any real depth or intimacy.
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So what’s the alternative? Well, at your next conference, function or networking event I encourage you to try a little experiment …
Focus on just one or two people, taking the time to speak with them at depth
A good thing about this is that if you are new to networking or more of an introvert, you won’t feel pressured to ‘work’ the room, going from pillar to post, waiting on the periphery of a conversation to speak to someone or hand over an unwanted business card. Not only will you come away from the event feeling as though you have spent some quality time connecting with people, but it’s likely that they will also feel the same way. Who knows, the other person could also be a newbie or shy!
Don’t just ask what a person does, but find out who the person is – why they chose their specific career path, what their background is, what they love about their business, what challenges they face, what interests they have, what they stand for, if they have family and if so, how their business affects their work/life balance. When you have conversations like this with people, they feel seen, heard and valued – things we all need to feel, not just in business, but as human beings.
Listening skills are important and one of the most valuable tools you can have as an entrepreneur. (We’ve all felt that frustration when someone asks you a question and then goes on to answer it themselves or spends the time looking around the room as you’re speaking, right?!)
So, what are the qualities of a good listener?
- Eye contact – I don’t mean challenge the person to a staring contest, but regular eye contact coupled with interested facial expressions show that you are being attentive to what the other person is saying.
- Mindfulness – this means staying in the moment, not letting your mind wander to thoughts of tonight’s dinner, the latest episode of Game of Thrones or whether your footy team will win the grand finals.
- Empathy – if you find yourself struggling to understand the other person’s viewpoint, perhaps try putting yourself in their position, how you would feel in a similar situation and what feelings and emotions that would bring up.
- Acceptance – whilst you may disagree with what the other person is saying, take a time to look inward and reflect on how that challenges your beliefs and whether it may warrant some further discussion or education. If you are confident in your beliefs, try to sit in the space without judgement or condemnation.
- Ask questions –by asking questions relevant to the topic, it is clear that you are paying attention and taking an interest in the conversation. Posting questions might invoke a new level of thinking or understanding, which leads to a more positive interaction.
Look for the opportunity
Whether or not you believe in fate or serendipity, we can often look back on chance meetings with gratitude. Looking for the opportunity does not mean focusing on what you can get from the meeting, but how you can give more effectively. Knowing that I have made a positive impact on the life/business of another is hugely rewarding and often something that takes minor effort on my part, is of an enormous benefit to the recipient.
Make a bigger pie
You’re at a networking event and you come across a competitor – do you:
- Hide in the corner of the room avoiding eye contact?
- Try to inconspicuously listen in on their conversations as if you were part of a covert swat team?
- Go over and introduce yourself, ask questions and listen attentively (see above).
Who knows what will come of an interaction with someone else who is in the same industry? Perhaps sharing of knowledge or ideas, new leads or perhaps even a future collaboration. My belief is that we shouldn’t be fighting over the same slice of pie, but instead, making a bigger pie.
Focus on the win/win
If someone mentions that they are struggling with finding a website designer and you happen to know someone who is outstanding in that field, the recommendation will not only benefit the person needing that skill set, but also the business you are recommending. This in turn may lead to better business relationships all-around and will almost certainly ensure that you get a recommendation in the future should it be appropriate. People remember those that help them, those that sought to improve their life or their business and people love to do business with those who have already established a trustworthy relationship with someone we know and respect.
I guess now it’s important to cover the big question – what’s in all of this for me?
Well, what’s in it for you is connection – one of Maslow’s top needs on the famous scale, only coming second to life support and safety requirements. Love and connection are vital to our emotional and mental health and the absence of it can lead to loneliness, depression, anxiety and low self-worth. Knowing that you are not alone, that your thoughts and feelings are valid and that your challenges are shared by many can often be the difference between success and failure.
Have fun making meaningful connections!