By Richard Oceguera @
It’s August 2014 in Little Falls, N.J., and I’m giving a talk to a group of 23 seasoned small business owners at their weekly leads group. “Who here absolutely loves networking?” The room is silent and only two hands go up. “Who here has been trained in the art of networking? Or, as I like to call it, the art of human connection?” Not a hand goes up this time. Finally I ask, “If there was a way to build your business that didn’t included networking, would you prefer that?” Every hand immediately flies up.
Whether I’m asking these questions in New Jersey, New York or California, the responses are similar. And, it is not specific to business owners. Corporate executives, nonprofit leaders and sales people I’ve worked with have the same feelings. While we all know that making connections is the key to widening our networks, creating new business opportunities and deepening existing relationships, business people would rather avoid it all together. So, what’s the disconnect? Why would people who depend on other people for their livelihoods want to avoid meeting new people?
I believe it boils down to one thing: a distorted view of what networking really is. Let me explain. In 1998, I moved to New York City from Chicago with a few bucks to my name and only a couple of friends in the city. Very shortly, I realized that to survive financially in New York City, I needed to develop a professional network. And, that meant I had to overcome my ingrained fear of being rejected. Not only am I an introvert, I was also painfully shy back then. While I love people, the uncomfortable process of being in a group and having to tell people what I do was sheer torture and a recipe for disaster.
Still, my desire to succeed outweighed the gripping fear, and I began to learn the ropes. I started attending galas, networking events and business leads groups. And, I was awful. So I read books, took on coaching and consulted friends who have this craft down to a science. Over time, my shyness dissipated; I got better at making connections, and my network grew — so much so that I became known as a networking expert. I went from wallflower to people magnet. Then, I transitioned from being an employee to an entrepreneur and was able to use my contact database to seed my own business ventures.
In 2008, I was asked to launch and lead the fledgling National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce New York. I used all I had learned about networking, sales and leadership to lay the foundation for this organization. We quickly attracted the support of many major corporations like American Airlines Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and New York Life Insurance Co. Hundreds of small businesses and many nonprofits joined the chamber too, and my job was to bring all of these members together for innovative networking opportunities.
What I have learned through these experiences is that many business people think networking is about asking “What do you do?”, giving away cards to as many people as possible and asking them to do business before they have the right to ask. It’s a transactional approach that makes for awkward and unfulfilling exchanges, and it’s what gives networking a bad rap. Go to any event, and you will see a group of well-intentioned people mostly getting it wrong. I understand because I used to be one of them.
What I have since learned is that when networking is not immediately focused on making a sale, but rather on getting to know your fellow human being, it can be extremely empowering and productive. I prefer to think of networking as the “art of human connection.” It’s about people getting to know each other beyond the titles and company names. It’s about creating authentic connections that lead to relationships over time. This kind of networking bears more fruit with deeper roots and leaves both parties feeling positive about the exchange. So, how do you move from the transactional to the conscious approach to building connections?
Here are three keys to get you started that, if practiced, will produce great results:
- Listen – The greatest gift we can give another human being is our listening. We all want to be heard and understood, and it is so rare in our society that people give us their undivided attention. Remember that people do business with people they know, like and trust. Listen intently to your networking partner, and you will build an instant rapport and credibility. They will want to continue building the relationship after the event and will naturally add you to their circle of influence.
- Make Eye Contact – At our deepest level, we humans simply want to be known. Focus on your networking partner by making eye contact to show them that you see who they are. This kind of contact sends both conscious and subconscious messages to your partner that lets them know you are interested in who they are, and it builds trust and rapport rapidly. If you have trouble making eye contact — many people do and are oblivious to this fact — you can practice by doing mirror work. Literally, stand in front of a mirror and look into your own eyes while smiling for as long as you can. When you divert your gaze, simply start over and try to stare into your eyes again for as long as possible. If you can’t look into your own eyes, how will you ever be able to look into a stranger’s?
- Ask Engaging Questions – “What brings you here tonight?” or “How are you connected to this organization?” are much more powerful than the standard “What do you do?” line that runs rampant. When you are initiating a new connection, the key is to find ways to learn about your new contact beyond the perfunctory business description. You will find this opens up more interesting conversations and helps take the underlying awkwardness out of the equation. More importantly, you will glean information that could be useful in that moment and in your future follow-up process. You’ll also show your new contact you’re interested in more than just the prospect of a sale. That interest will go a long way in building your know-like-and-trust factor.
In my coaching practice, I teach my clients the art of human connection, and it gives me great joy to witness that light-bulb moment when they realize that networking does not have to feel scary, dirty or uncomfortable and that it can actually be an enjoyable and profitable way to build a business. I encourage you to use these simple, yet powerful, keys the next time you are networking and see how they shift your conversations and help you build deeper human connections.
Richard Oceguera is an award-winning sales coach, speaker and author of “Convert Your Community to Cash: Monetize Your Connections.” You can learn more and download the first chapter of his book at www.RichardOceguera.com.