Why you should stop trying to network and start connecting

Feb 9, 2016 at 3:00 p.m. ET
Image: Caiaimage/Martin Barraud/Getty Images

How many times have you signed up for an event excited to attend but feel dread as the event approaches? You’re likely going alone, and you have to “network.” Even if you’re social and outgoing, networking can bring immense pressure. From putting your best face forward to making small talk to working the room so you make a valuable connection, you may end up walking around awkwardly, standing in the corner sipping wine by yourself or trying to uncomfortably jump in on conversations.

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This is an unpleasant experience, whether you have great people skills or not.

When we’re first launching our careers, we’re told that we “must network.” Networking, after all, is how the most successful people land opportunities. And while it's true, this advice can often misguide us.

Rather than being thoughtful and strategic about how we’re approaching connections, we jump in ready to speak with anyone who has a fancy title, works at an impressive company or seems successful. The immediate thought is if this person has her act together, she’ll be helpful to me somehow.

This approach is not only inauthentic, it feels uncomfortable and can lead to a waste of valuable time. When we’re networking, we should allow both authenticity and strategy to drive us. Below are four ways to build successful connections and feel comfortable doing it.

1. What's your purpose?

You don’t have to have your life purpose or even your career purpose figured out to start building valuable relationships. Start with your story. Who are you, and what are you looking to learn? It sounds obvious, but be clear on why you’re at this event or why you’re reaching out to this particular person.

To add purpose and authenticity to your connection, start with your knowledge and experience gaps.

For example, you may be interested in fashion tech, but you’re unsure if you should pursue marketing, business development or finance. Or perhaps you don’t know where the industry is headed and how that may impact the job market. Express your drive behind fashion tech, then talk about where you’re feeling stuck. Generally, people love sharing their expertise, so don’t be afraid to show what you don’t know.

Next, take the time to learn about the other person. Her experience may provide guidance. Maybe your contact will share her career path and the steps she’s taken to navigate her work life, even if she’s in a completely different industry. She may even be able to recommend resources for you to explore.

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2. Be selective

To make sure you’re meeting the right people, be selective with the meetups you attend. What events are you truly excited about? What topics are they discussing? Are you genuinely curious, or are you looking to attend this event because some big-time CEO will be there? Always choose the former.

When we’re launching our careers, we’re told to cast a wide net, but sometimes starting niche is more powerful. For example, you may be interested in working in consumer packaged goods. But what specific area piques your interest? Are you looking to learn more about food and sustainable farming practices or are large, traditional brands your focus?

Think about the areas in which you’re most curious, and start there. You can always go broad later.

3. Find your most comfortable format

How are you most comfortable connecting with people? Are you best one on one in an intimate setting, or do you thrive in groups? It’s important to be self-aware here because you’ll be most confident and genuine when you’re most comfortable.

If you’re best one on one, schedule more coffee dates and cut down on the number of events you attend per month. This is a great way to build deeper relationships and friendships instead of surface contacts.

Additionally, with the rise of technology, we have multiple ways of establishing a first connection. We can connect on Twitter or Facebook, send an email or schedule a 20-to-30-minute phone call before we meet in person. You can then follow up with a face-to-face meeting, which may be less pressure.

4. It's not about you. What can you offer?

Often we feel uncomfortable networking because the focus is on ourselves: What is this person thinking of me, and can she help me get a job at her company? Turn your attention to the other person. Get to know her. Ask questions about her experience, her interests and her passions. Listen and connect the dots.

And what can you offer that’s of value? Is there someone you know who can provide expertise in her line of work? Do you know someone who may be able to advance her career? Solid relationships develop when you can be a connector and offer your help.

For most of us, networking is awkward. There are too many expectations around it, and as a result, the experience is uncomfortable. Approaching connections with purpose, strategy and authenticity will not only make building new relationships a more pleasant experience but it will save us time and energy.

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Belma McCaffrey is the creator of Work Bigger, an 8-to-12-week part coaching, part strategy program that helps young professionals find their mission and lead with it in every aspect of their job search. She is redefining what we call work on http://belmamccaffrey.com.