When I was in the 10th grade, last week of school, something awful happened and I was devastated as only a teenager can be. I remember telling my parents I would NOT be attending the final week since I was too embarrassed at what had happened. My father said, Yes, you will go, and every single day till school is over, talk to one person you have never talked to before. Find out about that person her hobbies, what hell do for the summer. Learn about whats interesting to that person. Without saying it, of course, he was really telling me to think about someone else, rather than yourself, for a change.
It worked. Each night, I came home full of information about some kid Id never met or talked to before. By the end of school, I decided that Id go to the 11th grade after all.
A few years later, my first real job involved traveling the country to ask questions about how some regulation change would affect companies in the canned fruit and vegetable industries, or how much reflective glazing construction companies in Texas might use in the next five years, or what impact Japanese imports would have on American car firms. (Remember, this was before the Internet, so I had to go TO people, talk to them, and bring back that information.)
Once again, I used questions and focused on the other person. And I got pretty good at it. Ive done the same for my research, my teaching and, especially, when I am in an uncomfortable, new situation, since Im more of an introvert than I like to admit. Its largely a way to get the focus on to the other person. And who doesnt like talking about themselves?
But when I recently walked into a room of 100-plus people where I knew 3.5 of them (I was introduced to one persons daughter, so I kind of knew her at that point), I almost ran for the door. Im not good at networking, so I defaulted to asking questions and finding out about another person.
And then it hit me: Thats what networking is (for me, at least) finding the other persons story. That, we can all learn to do.
It spotlights the other person, which may help both people in the long run. You might learn something interesting. (How else would I have learned that crossbow hunting demands knowledge of weather and how scent travels, or that the catacombs of Rome have the oldest bodies buried closer to the top, or that coin collecting can teach you history?)
You might indeed get a contact for a job or one for your friend. You might even meet someone who becomes a great friend.
So, when my students tell me they arent good at networking or, worse, ask me HOW to network, I think I have a new answer. Ill give them an assignment to find one person every day who they do not know and learn as much as possible about that person in a short time 10 minutes, or even 5 minutes.
Just by turning the tables and becoming interested in even fascinated by the other person, networking as story-finding will become natural, and fun.