Not long ago, my marketing director Cassandra and I were making our way through the aisles of a trade show where we were continually (and in my mind, obnoxiously) interrupted by friendly kiss-kiss, hug-hug greetings. Not greetings for me, mind you. These exchanges were between Cassandra and what seemed like about every third person we passed by. Feeling a little rejected and slightly exasperated, I eventually blurted out, “Seriously, how do you know all of these people?”
Cassandra calmly replied, “Well, I go up to people and I say, ‘Hi, my name is Cassandra. What’s yours?’ Your problem, Jeff, is that while I am out introducing myself to people at these shows, you are in your hotel room pounding out emails. You don’t meet anyone for the very first time in a hotel room, Jeff. And if you do, that's a very bad thing.”
She had a point.
It took a conscious decision, but since then I’ve come to appreciate and even enjoy opportunities to intentionally interact with people I don’t know, and the rewards have been tremendous. As a recovered hotel-room hider, let me share the steps I have taken to deal with the discomfort of networking.
1. Decision before discomfort. If you are like me, you know that introducing yourself to people is going to be uncomfortable. So make the decision to deal with the feelings of discomfort that you know you’re going to have before you have them. Anticipating those feelings will lessen their effect. If you wait until you “feel ready” to meet people, you’ll be hiding out in that hotel room for a very long time. You can make the decision right this moment to be outgoing at your next networking opportunity.
2. Think “palms down.” Too many people (and I used to be one of them) value networking only for what they can gain. They see networking solely as a means to advance their agenda and careers. This has been called the “palms-up” approach. Think: A beggar with outstretched hands -- palms up -- hoping to receive something from anyone and everyone. I have learned that networking is most effective with a “palms-down” mindset. Focus on what you can contribute to relationships vs. what you can get from your new acquaintance. Seek to serve without thought of personal gain and guess what will happen? Good things!
Related: 9 Major Networking No-No's
3. Be interested. You don’t have to “fake it until you make it,” as some suggest. Everyone has a story. If it helps, think of yourself as a talk show host -- yes, of your own private little show -- where it is your job to be the friendly person who draws people out. Respond in a genuine way to what people actually say when you meet them, vs. rattling off meaningless small-talk phrases. But understand that there is no chit-chat quota you have to fulfill! A good way to avoid empty and awkward small talk is to get comfortable with the phrase, “Tell me more about that.” Use this phrase early and often and people will know that you are sincerely interested in them.
4. Be nice. There is civil and there is nice. Choosing to have a genuinely nice (vs. merely civil) approach to people is critical to your networking success. Concentrate on being kind, respectful and extremely appreciative of each person’s time and insight when meeting people for the first time. We are far more influenced by people we like, and we find nice people to be exceedingly likeable. As you anticipate networking situations, commit in advance to be your kindest self.
The rewards. Perhaps you skipped down to this section of the article because you want me to “show you the money.” Sorry to disappoint, but I cannot show you the literal or metaphorical money. There is no easy answer to describe how you will benefit from networking. For me, the rewards of focusing on networking have been incredible. I’ve made great connections, have had new opportunities and have made new friends. I’ve even had inspiring conversations with business celebrities.
But none of these things were the product of strategic networking. As I have embraced a “seek-to-serve” approach, these experiences have resulted organically. The “seek-to-serve” approach sounds like a worldview (because it is), but don’t forget that seeking to serve begins with simply getting out of your hotel room and saying, “Hi.”
Be bold. Make a decision. Serve people. Change the world.