When you hear the term “networking,” what do you picture in your mind? If you see a room full of strangers engaging in phony banter and exchanging business cards, it’s time to reframe your mindset.
Rather than viewing networking as a transactional process, start recognizing it as an opportunity to expand and diversify your circle of connections.
“Networking offers the possibility of a broad collection of interesting and varied people,” says Karen Wickre, author of Taking the Work out of Networking: An Introvert’s Guide to Making Connections That Count. “Think of it as your secret stash of people who are there for you when you need them to be.”
Ready to grow that circle? Here are 4 ways to start making meaningful connections:
1. Never neglect the power of listening.
If you’re an introvert who’s felt overwhelmed by the concept of networking, here’s a pleasant plot twist: you probably have a competitive advantage.
Introverts are often good listeners. They excel at asking questions and letting the other person talk first, rather than starting with themselves.
These listening skills are particularly useful when networking, because your energy can influence the result of the conversation.
“The other person will feel that you’re genuinely interested in them because you didn’t automatically launch into your agenda,” says Wickre. “And then they are more likely to help or share their insights.”
During your next conversation with someone new, make sure that you’re staying attentive and curious.
Along with showing sincerity, active listening can help you easily recall key discussion points when conducting follow-up outreach.
2. Stay in “Loose Touch.”
Rather than resorting to networking during urgent circumstances, focus on staying in “loose touch.”
“Loose touch is simply keeping in touch occasionally with people when you don’t have a need,” says Wickre. “By treating this as an ongoing process, reaching out is not as frightening in the moment when you truly need help.”
An example of staying in loose touch could be as simple as: “Just saw this on the news and thought of you. How are you?”
This helps ensure that you both stay top of mind to each other, and can serve as a resource when the time arises.
As opposed to filling up your calendar with multiple meetings, these sporadic check-ins involve minimal time and ultimately provide more value
3. Don’t be afraid to start small.
If you’re a networking newbie, there’s no need to pressure yourself to “work the room.” In reality, a few short conversations here and there can go a long way.
“Rather than approaching every conversation as a chance to recite your job and background, try in-the-moment small talk as an ice-breaker,” says Wickre.
Perhaps a funny moment occurs at the event, and you and the person next to you have a shared moment of laughter. This might offer a natural progression to a casual conversation.
If you’re still feeling intimidated by the idea of approaching strangers, stick to people you already know.
Wickre suggests drawing upon your current connections, even if you haven’t been in touch with them recently. This can feel less daunting than talking to a stranger.
For instance, try reaching out to a co-worker who you admire but don’t know well. Ask if they would like to grab coffee and chat.
These conversations can offer a non-threatening way to enhance an existing connection, or to revive a connection from the past.
And sometimes, you’ll find that the most valuable connections were there all along.
4. Break traditions.
While networking events are specifically designed for making professional connections, keep in mind that the opportunities are endless.
With the growth of online tools, Wickre notes that it’s never been easier to connect.
So if in-person events aren’t your style, work on polishing up your LinkedIn profile. Join a few Facebook groups to connect with others in your field.
Plus, remember that networking opportunities can arise unexpectedly. You could connect with a friend of a friend at a party, or even in line at the grocery store.
“There’s no end to the ways that you can meet people to make authentic connections,” says Wickre. “Be open to the serendipity of the moment when it happens.”