How to Strengthen Your Network
A communication expert’s advice for connecting with new people in our virtual times.
There’s an overused phrase that it’s not what you know — but rather whom you know — that helps us achieve success. In a time when many of us are working from home and in-person networking events are a distant memory, there are still opportunities for getting to know new people.
It’s no surprise we need strong networks to advance our careers. But, there are other reasons for networking: We can also benefit creatively from getting to know strangers, explains John Daly, TCB Professor of Management at the McCombs School of Business and Liddell Centennial Professor of Communication. He is the author of “Advocacy: Championing Ideas and Influencing Other.”
Currently, many of us are spending most of our time at home. How can we continue to network?
You can start by meeting strangers in online groups. If you are looking to improve at, say, public speaking, I am sure there are sites out there filled with others just like you. Join up and you’ll first meet a lot of strangers, but quickly you’ll become acquaintances.
One person I know has always wanted to fly planes but never got around to it. But since COVID-19, he’s joined sites like Reddit, Facebook, and LinkedIn to get advice from strangers about where to go for flying lessons, the best planes to learn on, and so on. Some of those strangers have become pals.
For people looking to network but hesitant to connect with someone we don’t know, what do you advise?
First, stop negotiating with yourself. Too many of us forgo opportunities because we fear that we might not get what we want. We literally talk ourselves out of opportunities.
With strangers, why not try to connect? What’s the worst that will happen? Probably nothing. But perhaps good things will happen. So just try to make the connection. There is a very old statement made about some people, often in their obituaries: “He never met a stranger.” That means that no matter who they met, they created some sort of connection when they first talked.
That’s a good reminder for those of us who get nervous about conversation with strangers. What do you recommend we say to them?
Find a “reason” for connecting.
I tell my students to use me as an excuse: “My professor gave us an assignment to talk with someone in your role. I’d like to visit with you.” Most people will probably say yes.
How else can we make interacting with new people easier?
Find something you might have in common and use that as a leverage point to get a conversation going. You can start up a conversation looking for what researchers call an integrating topic — one where both people have something in common. When we get back to more face-to-face conversations, I might ask a stranger, “Where are you from?” or “What do you do?” I keep asking these sorts of questions until we find something in common to chat about. Use a lot of open-ended questions.
How can we take the lead when we’re networking?
Volunteer to organize things that might help you connect. At work, you can organize a time for a meeting or set up a poll to see when people are available. You can find an electronic card for everyone to sign for a colleague who’s out of the office with sick kids.
Outside of work, you can show people a great place you’ve discovered for a distanced hike: “I’m going to be there on Saturday about 2 p.m. If you want to join me, just let me know.”
Can we use email to build our networks?
Email to ask questions about something. For example, “Hi, I work over in the College of Natural Sciences doing PR and writing news stories. I have heard that you are really good at that. Would you mind having a conversation? It doesn’t have to be long, but I would love to get your advice.”
I notice you asked for advice.
It’s often better to ask for people’s advice than asking them a question. One goal people should have is to get adopted by others — you’re successful when others want you to be successful. Asking someone for their advice gets them more committed to helping you.
Story by Jeremy M. Simon