Karen Wickre is the author of Taking the Work Out of Networking: An Introvert's Guide to Making Connections That Count, from which this article is adapted.
For many people, the idea of “networking” evokes a strong response. It seems phony, transactional — an inch deep and not nearly a mile wide. The Harvard Business Review offers a wry (and not inaccurate) definition: “the unpleasant task of trading favors with strangers.”
It’s not only onerous, either. The common wisdom is that you’re forced to network only when a big change looms: you’ve been layered or demoted; you don’t like the new pivot (or the new boss); your job is going away altogether. The idea that you have to get out there to transact when you may feel most vulnerable is not fun. And if you do make a helpful contact, humbling yourself to get a good word, or good lead, can make you feel downright desperate (shouldn’t you be able to do this on your own?). Then there’s the stress of putting yourself in the hands of strangers, or near-strangers, for guidance. Add any kind of time pressure — say your job ends very suddenly, a big loan payment is due, or you’re in the midst of family upheaval — and you’re likely to feel abjectly bad at a time when you need to appear to be on solid footing.
Here’s a little secret: at some point, every one of us is going to need help from someone we don’t currently know. Maybe it’s for a job, or family help; it might be about a necessary career pivot, or relocation; it could be for medical or retirement guidance. You — and virtually everyone else — will need to reach out to a number of people for contacts, information or insights, or support. The same is true for others who will be in similar situations — and who may reach out to you during their quest. If remembering this helps you get over thinking of vulnerability as a weakness, that’s good! Presumably you’re already okay with giving a friendly ear to other people; now it’s time to get okay with seeking help for yourself. That’s key to making this whole thing work.
One assumption about networking the old, onerous way (especially when there’s a pressing need) is that we have to commit time to rounds of calls and coffee dates. Not entirely true! Today, we have more ways than ever to meet, reconnect, and follow up with people online. This is what I call keeping in “loose touch”: you pop up now and again to current as well as to new connections and acquaintances via online channels — via email, texting, or LinkedIn and other social media — with no obligation to block out hours of time. These online touchpoints do take some thought ahead of time, but they don’t require the same kind of energy and effort as scheduling calls and meetings. You don’t even have to be in the same time zone, hemisphere, or continent to stay in touch.
Long ago, my own loose-touch habit consisted of a well-worn address book whose cover always had a fresh Post-it list of the phone calls I would make each day. The list represented tasks I needed to do, plus a few people I’d been thinking about. I’d make those calls (or leave messages) and cross them off the list. Whomever I missed would go on the next day’s Post-it. Fast forward to the twenty-first century: today, picking up the phone is my last resort for keeping in loose touch. Non-voice uses (text, search, email) on mobile phones surpassed voice calls nearly a decade ago, in 2010.
Aside from the explosive growth of mobile phones for everything other than phoning, we’ve become accustomed to many services based on time-shifting — meaning that we can do something when we want to, rather than at a set time. We’ve become asynchronous, in other words: We no longer have to call a retailer to put in an order or ask about a delivery. We don’t have to wait for a store to open or run around looking for a specific item in our desired volume/color/size. We don’t watch the six o’clock news; for better or worse, news comes to us 24/7. We’ve gotten extremely comfortable working, buying, socializing, and collaborating through many such time shifts.
Communications, too, have time-shifted. Texting, searching, direct messaging, and even old reliable email, are all asynchronous — none requires the immediacy of a phone call. And these are more convenient ways to connect or get answers. You don’t have to worry about interrupting anyone, because they can respond when they’re free. Asynchronicity is also perfect for introverts, who may shy away from the immediacy of a real-time conversation. You can take the time to compose thoughtful messages, since you’re not as on-the-spot for the perfect response.
In an insightful essay, “The Power of Asynchronous Communication,” media strategist David Benson observes that when we let go of communicating only in real time in favor of email or other “you’ll see it when you see it” messaging, we can “maintain the essential bonds of friendship and dialog” with friends and acquaintances alike.
Another helpful key to overcoming fear and loathing of networking is to practice connecting a little every day, especially when you don’t need help, and there’s no deadline. Here’s my No. 1 guiding principle: Nurture your network before you need it.
If you do this habitually when you’re not feeling needy, you’ll begin to see yourself as a giver, not a taker. If you can even occasionally be a problem-solver for others, that helps you get over the fear of feeling needy — to feel more useful yourself. This may be the crux of connecting with other people: how we approach giving when we don’t need to and taking when we do. Networking requires both, and the understanding you bring in the moment to either task. In his book The Gift, Lewis Hyde writes with great insight about what he calls the “gift economy” and the value of reciprocity. Instead of limiting ourselves to tit-for-tat exchanges, he writes, it’s better to act on the idea that “a gift is kept alive by its constant donation.”
It’s in this spirit that I suggest your networking habit build around what you have to give to others. Twenty years ago, I didn’t set out to amass a lot of contacts or cash in on a bunch of favors. What I had was a strong desire for two things: one, make meaningful connections with people, because they helped me feel less alone in the world; and two, share those connections with others for the advice or answers they needed. The simple truth is, I don’t like anyone to go away empty-handed. I want to be useful. I don’t always have the right information, let alone a perfect solution, but I do have faith that between some number of us, good answers emerge. I want to increase the odds of resolving an open question through my connections. And I like the mutual puzzle-solving that occurs when a couple of us think through the next steps to take, the next contacts to reach out to.
When someone tells me they don’t have time to connect in order to help someone, I always think, What does it cost you to make a little time? Part of the payoff that awaits is hearing someone’s story and making a wonderful connection instead of passing it by. The serendipity of it may be as valuable as anything else. Seattle entrepreneur and master connector Julie Schlosser says she thinks connecting and sharing connections is “kind of like donating money. It brings happiness that you can’t really explain . . . that’s like a religious rule, Ten Commandment–type thing.” I feel the same way. I don’t want to suggest you should drop everything in the moment to meet a stranger. We all have obligations and deadlines to deal with. When I agree to meet someone I don’t know, usually to hear about their job quests and think of introductions I can make, I’ll do it when I have time, which might be weeks away. Email connections are easier and quicker, of course, as they can happen at your convenience. I’m always willing to tap out an email and wait for a reply before I connect two people. If you can approach networking based on what you can give someone else, it lessens the awkwardness you may feel about what you need. There will be times when you do need new ideas, introductions, guidance — we all do. Until then, there are going to be many chances for you to offer your gifts of listening, brainstorming, and making introductions to others. As I always find myself reminding people, no matter what you do, you have knowledge that can be useful to others. Perhaps Lewis Hyde’s opening line in The Gift says it best: “What is good is given back.”
So often when we need advice or introductions, we’re hoping for a single touchpoint that will solve our problem. I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing that my favorite search engine (or Magic 8-Ball) would just deliver the right answer: OK, Google, what’s my perfect job? Which field best suits me? Where should I live? Which is the best school to go to, which degree should I pursue? Wouldn’t it be great if we could simply go to the top result for our query and from there apply, join, reserve a spot (or whatever) to get where we want to be? The fact is, though, that precious few perfectly-formed answers come to us in such a straightforward way, let alone a single step.
Being perennially poised for a wonderful surprise is a great quality. But my practical self, and probably yours, understands that we have to prepare ourselves to ask — to take — along the way, as well as give. Musician Amanda Palmer has explored the idea of taking in her book The Art of Asking. As she tells the story, for a long time she was a street performer who scratched together money for recording sessions when she could. Eventually, she launched what became a very successful Kickstarter campaign to get funds to support her work. It was then Palmer realized “often it is our own sense that we are undeserving of help that has immobilized us. Whether it’s in the arts, at work, or in our relationships, we often resist asking not only because we’re afraid of rejection but also because we don’t even think we deserve what we’re asking for.” If you’re thinking, Okay, but I’m not famous. How does this apply to me? Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting everyone launch an online campaign.
The larger point is that Palmer overcame her internal reservations about asking others to support her work. When her fans gave, she was able to take what she had asked for. That was the key to Palmer’s new awareness of the dynamic between giving and taking. I believe you can benefit from this dynamic, too. People like to be asked to help and will help you — just as you’ll want to help others.
It may seem a bit too otherworldly to simply be open to whatever happens — even if your introduction doesn’t pan out, or the guidance you get isn’t spot on. But it’s imperative to see beyond the immediate outcome, and also not feel guilty about trying.