Thursday, June 26, 2008

Networking or Information-Gathering?

Many people are very uncomfortable with "networking." I know this from two sources: the number of people who are peddling seminars and webinars and books to help others learn how to network effectively; and people in TransitionWorks who resist that step of the job search process.

Here's how I have approached the topic of networking.

The word "networking" can seem very big and overwhelming. On the other hand, talking to one person is specific and perhaps not as frightening. Dial it back to a place where you’re comfortable and not overwhelmed. Articulating specific next steps helps make it not overwhelming.

It helps me to think through exactly what might make me reluctant. Often it's fear. For me, fear can stem from attaching a lot of importance to the activity, and making the stakes REALLY high. So if I think that "networking" is going to lead either to my realizing my dreams or dashing my hopes - well, those are very high stakes and why on earth would I want to risk so much? Instead, I can think in smaller terms.

I like to think of specific tasks, next steps or people with whom I want to connect, instead of thinking about "NETWORKING." All I'm doing is finding out more about the field and work in which I'm interested. I'm simply connecting with a friend or former colleague or friend of a friend. I am taking an action that hopefully will have a small result - meaning I have an interesting conversation and possibly get the name and contact information for one more person with whom I can speak. The result isn't getting or not getting my dream job. That comes later, and the steps leading to that will all fall into place and make sense as they unfold. In other words, "take the action and let go of the result."

Perhaps I'll find, like one friend, that I'm uncomfortable making "cold calls" to people for the purposes of networking. In that case, let me see if I can find someone to make an introduction for me either in person or via e-mail. This one friend put it in these terms: "I need a warm introduction."

The same person also didn't know what she would say to people. Why on earth am I contacting them? I don't know if I want a job right now. HELP! She realized that all she has to say is "I'm thinking about changing jobs, and wanted to learn more about what you do. Would it be possible for us to have lunch or meet?" There's no commitment on her part, she's not asking for a job and putting the other person on the spot, and it's a very reasonable request that is easily accommodated.

We realized, too, that for her, networking implies that she is doing something for herself and is putting herself out into the world, perhaps exposing herself to an uncomfortable extent. I suggested that she think about the process as information-gathering, not networking. She liked that and said:

Networking is about putting yourself out there while information-gathering is about pulling information into you.

It satisfies her need for the meeting to be more about the other person and less about her and her needs. "Gathering information" is a format that lends itself to interviewing someone, asking questions to find out about the other person. Preparing a set of questions is helpful if you're not comfortable winging it. Most people will be happy to talk about themselves.

(I did caution my friend that she might have to ask women more than one question. for whatever reason, women often are much more aware of how much space and time we take up. Just think about how some men sit on the NYC subway - legs wide apart, taking up as much space as they want or think they need. I don't think I've seen more than two or three women do that in the 26 years I've ridden the NYC subways. In the same way, most women may need a prompting question or two to continue describing their experience - and take up the time and space they deserve.)

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