Walking into any networking event can be intimidating. The pressure is on to make the most of every connection, but this underlying stress can rob encounters of the one thing they need to be effective – authenticity.
I recently enjoyed Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Bait and Switch”. The book details the demoralisation amongst modern white collar workers who, she posits, largely fall into two groups: job seekers and those who live in fear of unemployment – recognising they are just one round of lay-offs away from being expendable themselves. Posing as a unemployed white collar worker she dutifully attended networking events across America.
While not job searching myself, I recognised her astute observation about networking: “It feels ‘fake’ because we know it involves the deflection of our own natural human sociability to an ulterior end. Normally we meet strangers in the expectation that they may be truly strange, and are drawn to the multilayered mystery that each human presents. But in networking, as in prostitution, there is no time for fascination. The networker is always…looking over the shoulder of the person she engages in conversation, toward whatever concrete advantage can be gleaned from the interaction – a tip or precious contact. The instrumentalism undermines the possibility of a group identity… white collar victims of a corporate upheaval. No matter how crowded the room, the networker prowls alone, scavenging to meet his or her individual needs.”
While that description may sound dismally mercenary, it is very apt. The key in networking is not to be the ‘shoulder overlooker’ but to set your sites on meeting just a small handful of people at an event. If you place the expectation on yourself that you must meet and exchange cards with a dozen new people, you won’t have the time to authentically engage with any of them. If there is no time for authenticity, you won’t get a good sense of who they really are and how you can help them. And realistically, people will unlikely be vested in helping you if they don’t feel truly heard and understood in the first place. Go for fewer, more authentic interactions – for your own enjoyment as well as those you meet.