Many of us loathe the idea of networking because of how unnatural it can feel. We limit our engagement in this important activity to avoid glad-handing strangers who might be useful to our careers. I’ve had clients who cringe at the very idea of attending a professional event to pass out business cards or work the room.
But there’s an alternative to this schmooze-oriented approach to networking. It’s based on establishing authentic connections.
Networking in this way involves viewing fellow professionals as people, rather than as stepping stones on your path to success. The connections you make will benefit your career, and you’ll likely feel more comfortable about participating in the process.
“Most people haven’t figured out that it’s better to spend more time with fewer people at a one-hour get-together, and have one or two meaningful dialogues, than engage in the wandering-eye routine and lose the respect of most of the people you meet,” says networking expert Keith Ferrazzi in his book Never Eat Alone.
Here are four tips to get you started on making authentic connections.
Choose your preferred environment. Some people like approaching strangers at boisterous professional events, and some prefer prearranged meetings with a single person in a quiet coffee shop. The best place to engage with a potential contact is in a setting where you feel most at ease.
Be yourself. Don’t adopt a persona for the sake of networking. If you’re quiet and reserved, don’t pretend to be outgoing and gregarious. If you’re new to a field, don’t pretend to be an old hand. Have the courage to show people who you truly are, and it will encourage them to do the same. That’s how you begin a real relationship.
Keep it positive. In a networking context, being yourself doesn’t mean letting it all hang out. Avoid the temptation to complain or criticize so you don’t alienate people before they get to know you.
Be curious. There’s no way to connect with someone if it’s all about you. Make sure to have a two-way conversation by asking good questions about the person on the other side of the table.
A solid professional support system
This approach is not about seeking an immediate boost for your career. It’s about getting to know people by really engaging with them and, just maybe, having a bit of fun. You chat about favorite movies, share restaurant recommendations, and talk about your kids’ soccer games, going wherever the conversation takes you. You may not bring up work at all.
Once you establish a relationship—which sometimes involves multiple meetings—you will have made a professional contact. One day, your new connection might assist you if you’re looking for a new job or some practical advice.
This is the beauty of authentic networking. You can build a solid professional support system without the pretense of schmoozing. If you focus on making real connections with people, the career benefits will simply fall into place.
Career Corner is a monthly feature written by UW-Madison’s Continuing Studies staff. April McHugh, a career counselor, can be reached at email@example.com. This article originally appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal.