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Be an altruistic networker

I stand at a networking event in Cheltenham1. I’m not here to sell anything, simply to meet a few people who may or may not be useful to know. Initially I have to force myself to go say hello to unfamiliar people, but I am welcomed warmly, like an old friend into a mix of people who, like me, are there simply to socialise in a professional capacity.

I used to have this vision of networking events as disingenuous and very formal business environments, full of high flying, self-promoters who are there simply to sell their services. To stand in a room of unfamiliar people, drink in hand, forced smile on face and an equally forced interest in other people’s work, making small talk until the opportunity comes to sell, sell, sell, seemed more than a little false. I could never quite get over the feeling that I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t, trying to sell something no-one wanted to buy. It’s incredibly daunting. But I’m not alone – it seems that many of us avoid networking events for fear that we will be seen as being ‘fake’.

Don’t get me wrong; there are networkers like that. In my experience there are ‘takers’, those who are there simply to try to sell their services, who have no real interest in others; who strike up a conversation only to launch into a well-rehearsed pitch for their business. Most of us can spot a ‘taker’ from one hundred paces.

And then there are the ‘givers’; those who show a genuine interest in the lives of others, who are there to build mutually beneficial relationships, share ideas, ways of working, to find common ground or unexplored avenues. They ask questions, delve into the detail of another’s working life. They ask about work projects or industry news.

Most people like to talk about themselves. Give them the opportunity to talk about what they do and they will leave the conversation with a more favourable impression of you and will be more interested in following up, giving you the opportunity to offer some help2.

Few of us are naturals at building rapport with complete strangers, but if we want to expand our client base, develop business partnerships, find a better job or find better staff, then it is a necessity. Thankfully, it gets easier the more we do it. And, research shows that the more powerful we become in our working lives, the easier networking becomes because we have more to offer, making our interaction with others more about giving rather than taking. So, if we were to change our mindset to one that is more altruistic, to consider what we can offer rather than take, and give people the opportunity to talk then we are likely to feel more comfortable in networking situations.

Take a long-term view and show sincere interest in the other party then there is no reason to feel like a fake. If you are a naturally caring and thoughtful person, this won’t be difficult. Provided it’s authentic, a compliment is a great conversation starter that will help build initial rapport. If you’re not, you may want to cultivate this life skill, it will reap huge benefits in the form of connections, which might, one day turn into clients.

For a more in-depth look at networking and its benefits, take a look at this Harvard Business Review article.

1. The event was Laptop Friday if you’re interested
2. This advice also works for online networking in social networks

Image credit: Working hard at #LaptopFriday