In the previous blog post, we reviewed some tips on how to make the most of your networking opportunities. Here are a few more.

networkingSmall Talk

Small talk is one of those things that you know you need to do but that many people dread. Yet it is essential for success in the professional world. Technical skills and knowledge account for about fifteen percent of the reason you get a job, keep a job, or move up, but eighty five percent of job success has to do with people skills. One key people skill is the ability to engage in small talk. Learning ways to engage others in conversation helps to create a zone of comfort with another person, and helps to create friendship and trust. And just like a sport, you can get better at it if you practice and understand how to improve your game.

The first goal is to engage with another person and create a zone of comfort. Start with openers, which are little phrases or interactive verbal tidbits:

  • “Hi, how are you doing?” “How are you enjoying the conference/ party/ meeting?” “What did you think of the speaker?”
  • “Hi, —–, it’s good to see you again. How have you been? Have you done any interesting traveling lately? I remember hearing you were going to go to Chile to kayak. Did you ever do that?”
  • “Hi, is this your first time coming to this conference/ seminar?“

What openers do is open the door to a more extensive conversation in a way that is comfortable for both people. They are innocuous comments that are open-ended and general, allowing the other person to say something in return that can lead to a fuller conversation. This is one of the reasons that people start by talking about the weather. It is a universal concern for everyone, especially if the weather is bad, because it forms an immediate common bond. “Was your plane on time? Was it delayed because of the storm?” Other common bonds for people at a conference are usually linked to information that helps others: good break-out sessions to attend, good speakers, good places to go for dinner, interesting sights in the city where the conference is held, problems with the hotel (e.g., a broken elevator or a problem accessing the workout facility), or good information about a special service or event (e.g., “Did you know the hotel has a tea time every day in the lobby and the food is great!”).

Be a Giver and a Connector

As you are talking with people you meet at networking events, think of them as new friends, and try to think of ways to make their life a little better. See if you can find ways to give back, because that really helps not only them but you as well. How can you give back? Little gifts of information, connection, support, promotion, and help go a long way to creating and cementing a good relationship.

A gift of information could be a link to an article that might be interesting to a person you got to know at an event. For example, let’s imagine that you have a shared interest: in sustainable foods, in a baseball team, or in traveling to Japan. If you have read an article, blog, or book that was interesting to you on this topic, your new friend might also find it interesting. When you get the opportunity, send an email mentioning how much you enjoyed chatting at the conference, and include the link to the book or article. Try to do that within a day or two of your return.

A gift of connection is an introduction of one person you know to this new person you just met. When you connect people, it helps them, but you also benefit. For example, when I went to a conference of career services providers called the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), I went to a talk by an author who had written an interesting book (Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks by Grover Cleveland). After the talk I introduced myself and we had a fun time talking about where he works and how he developed the concepts for his book. I shared information about my book as well. Then I mentioned that the woman who was the president of NALP this year, Charlotte Wager of Jenner and Block, was a friend of mine. I thought she would really like to know about his book because she helps young associates do better at her firm as part of her professional development responsibilities. Grover was eager to meet Charlotte and I sent an email to both of them to introduce them to each other. A few months later the three of us decided to put together a presentation for next year’s NALP conference. We worked on it together. It turned out to be a terrific presentation and also deepened our friendship.

A gift of support is listening to someone and affirming them. That is something that is all too rare these days. It is a true gift.

A gift of promotion can happen if you are involved in an organization and can offer the person you just met the chance to be a speaker or write an article for a magazine. This can be great for building brand and name recognition.

A gift of help is one where you lend a hand to a project that this person is involved in. These are often non-profit endeavors. For example, you could volunteer to be a judge for the high school moot court competition that your new friend organizes to help students prepare for law school.

Finally, you can give small tangible gifts. A book with a note from you in the flyleaf, thanking the person for spending the time to talk with you, is always a nice idea.

Silence the Inner Critic

Many people who have trouble making connections with others have a harsh inner voice that whispers negative or critical things as they are trying to have a conversation. It would be as if you were trying to play basketball or tennis, but your coach was in your ear putting you down and making discouraging comments. If your inner coach is not supportive, it will be very hard for you to have a positive interaction with someone you just met. How can you stop that harsh inner voice from interfering with your game?

First, listen to the way you talk to yourself. Try to capture the messages you are giving yourself. Are you thinking “I cannot do this,” “This makes me feel nervous and vulnerable,” “I feel afraid that I will make a mistake,” or “I am not good at small talk?” Negative messages come in a lot of varieties. They often originate with a parent or teacher and end up becoming internalized. Most successful people have to have at least a mini-version of the inner critic in order to become successful, reminding yourself to work harder or study more. That kind of thinking is valuable because we prompt ourselves to do better. However, the inner critic can get out of hand with harsh, negative messages that interfere with success. Nowhere do I see this more than when a person is shy or anxious interacting in social settings. Once you understand that your harsh inner critic is interfering with your success, it becomes easier to retrain your inner critic and tame the negative voice.

When you catch yourself delivering a negative message, have a “conversation” with your inner critic. Push back with logic and positive messages. “The only way I will ever get better at this game is to do it and to support myself.” “I have done tough things before and gotten better at it. I can do that again.” “This is going to get easier when I practice it so I have to practice it.”

Finally, reward yourself. Give yourself a gift for having done something difficult, challenging, and outside of your comfort zone. Do you have a favorite Netflix series you can watch as a reward? Do you have a favorite candy? Do you want to buy yourself a small gift? Do it! You earned a reward.