Networking is hard. And it can be additionally difficult when you are part of a group that is discriminated against or marginalized in some way.
But networking is necessary if you want to progress in both your personal life and your career. My hope is that this article will help you in both of those facets.
My name is Wesley Faulkner. There are some differences that you can see about me. But, there are others that you can’t. First, I’m a minority. I’m usually the odd person out when I enter a conference or meeting. As a Black man, I stick out like a sore thumb. I’m sure many of you reading this feel the same way about your own differences.
I’m also a child of immigrants. Both of my parents came to the US as adults from different countries. As a first generation, I’m not technically African-American but I am a Black American. In my experience, when people judge me for the way that I look, I often feel misplaced because I sound typically American but I grew up in an immigrant household, and therefore often miss cultural references that people expect me to understand.
Thirdly, I’m not wealthy and I didn’t grow up with extra money. That means I don’t have exposure to various life experiences that often shape people or set them apart. My pool of experiences is limited because of funds. When we talk about the wealth gap, that also often translates directly into a cultural gap.
I’m not highly educated. I did attend college, but I did not finish a degree. Privilege also comes along with education and even though more people of color are earning degrees, there are still a disproportionate amount of White people claiming authority based on education. Conversely, you often hear of stories of cis-White men who have dropped out of college as though it’s not that big of a deal. But for people from marginalized groups, dropping out is a big deal and you have to find ways to prove your worth.
Finally, I’m neurodivergent. I have both ADHD and dyslexia. These are invisible disabilities because they aren’t something you see upon meeting a person, but they do impact my networking skills at times. Paying attention to a long conversation or getting to a shared understanding of what is being said are key parts of networking that I have to focus on.
I’ve put together this list because even though I am more than these pieces that make up my personality, they still play a major role when I meet people during networking. Folks in marginalized groups sometimes feel shame, which can influence how we present ourselves to others, and cause us to hold back. That’s why self-acceptance is a big part of my strategy. Coming up with your own list of features that cause you shame will bring them into the light, and you may find them easier to tackle.
Benefits of networking
One benefit that you get from networking is gaining new perspectives. Because of the limitations of time and space, you can’t be everywhere at all times. But when you network with other people, you learn about their journeys, get a little snippet of their experiences, and learn more about the world through them. It’s like getting dispatches from corners of the world that you haven’t been able to visit. Being able to network with people from a diverse set of backgrounds heightens this advantage.
Networking also allows you to help others. One of my favorite parts of networking is when I meet one person with a particular need and another who happens to have the solution, and I am able to connect them. They get an enhanced relationship with each other because you know them both. In that way, networking isn’t just about selfish ends: it can also be beneficial to others.
When you accept yourself and put yourself out there, you feel more comfortable and interact with higher self-esteem. That alone reduces some of the awkwardness of networking. You don’t have to worry about facing a sea of people and being the only one out of place: you can simply be in those moments without feeling like you have to hide those ‘flaws’. Instead, those aspects that you choose to accept can become points of connection with others.
Why is networking hard?
Everyone struggles with at least some aspects of networking. Accepting that is a good initial step. Some of the most common struggles include the discomfort of figuring out who to talk to. Should you talk to someone new or someone you already know? What do you talk about? The weather? What do you do for a living?
It is generally difficult to find shared subject matter that provides the grounds for a connecting conversation, especially with someone you’ve just met. Because of this, most people are bad at it. So, keep in mind that the person you’re talking to is probably feeling clumsy too!
Common myths about networking
Not everyone has the benefit of learning about networking through formal education. Instead, we glean networking skills through movies and television. But these depictions have led to some common misconceptions about how it should happen:
- ‘Networking is transactional.’ I’m selling this, you’re promoting that, etc. By nature, transactional networking connections are temporary. You might make a connection with someone based on one job, but it will fall by the wayside if you move on to another role. This is especially relevant in the tech industry, where people change jobs regularly.
- ‘Frame yourself as important.’ Wrong. Asserting your status by controlling the conversation, talking louder, or focusing only on your subject matter is not effective networking. You risk coming across as a show-off and turn that person away.
- ‘Remember people like to talk about themselves.’ Not always true. We’re often taught to ask several questions. The risk, however, is that people might end up feeling interrogated. People are looking for a give and take in conversation rather than a string of questions.
- ‘Give a firm handshake.’ Wrong. This is a signal of dominance and again reasserts your importance and your power. This action starts off the encounter on an unequal footing (and when done awkwardly, can actually cause pain!).
- ‘Ask people what they do.’ Be careful. Though you might learn something about the other person, people are more than what they do for work. Focusing on their work narrows down the conversation, potentially pigeonholes them, and might raise shame if they happen to be unemployed or shy about what they do.
Tips for getting networking right
The above-mentioned misunderstandings around networking often prevent folks from making authentic connections at events. The following tips are actions that have helped me to network successfully, removing the awkwardness of things like hierarchy differences or feeling at a loss for how to begin a conversation. These have been especially helpful in putting others at ease, as well as myself:
- Make eye contact. If you’re able to comfortably make eye contact it shows that you’re really interested. If making eye contact is a challenge, you can also try looking at the top of their nose or the middle of their forehead.
- Listen without interrupting. Sometimes people are finding their flow in a conversation and interrupting them may shut down where they’re headed.
- Don’t focus on what to say next. Instead, follow the conversation as it’s happening. If you are thinking about what to say next, you will likely miss what they are saying in the moment.
- Smile. It shows that you’re approachable and draws out people’s general mirroring habits and in turn, you’ll see many smiles. It also releases dopamine and endorphins in your body that will give you a feel-good boost.
- Stay away from unaligned people. Some people will be racist, transphobic, misogynistic, etc. If that becomes apparent, feel free to suddenly need to get some water or visit the restroom. Excusing yourself from these conversations will relieve you from situations where you can’t show your full self.
- Arrive early. This gives you the opportunity to get familiar with the setting if you haven’t already done so, and it also gives you the chance to begin talking to people before the sea of people arrives.
- Focus on the journey. No matter who you’re talking to, your paths have converged at the same spot. The journey encompasses the past, present, and future and therefore creates endless possibilities for discussion. Some questions you might ask are: What brought you to this conference? What session are you going to next? When did you get into town? A great way to keep the conversation moving is by beginning at the point of contact and either going forward or backward from there.
- Be inclusive. Use inclusive language (e.g. avoid elitist or classist terms) and don’t make assumptions about people’s identities, including gender and sexuality.
- When you make a connection, follow up! Ask them how they would like to stay in touch. Find the medium that they prefer and opt for that.
It’s okay to be uncomfortable when networking – everyone is. The goal isn’t to get it perfect, but to keep working at it. By following these tips, you can improve your skills, grow more connections, and (hopefully!) even learn to enjoy it.