Like flossing or frequent oil changes, networking is one of those non-negotiable adulting tasks we all admittedly neglect more than we should. The term itself is anxiety-inducing (it involves small talk with a stranger after all), yet connecting with colleagues and potential mentors is instrumental to long-term career advancement.
“Networking gives relationship-building a bad name, but it’s really about meeting people, learning what matters to them, and finding ways to help each other out,” says Melanie Katzman, psychologist, executive coach, and author of Connect First: 52 Simple Ways to Ignite Success, Meaning, and Joy at Work.
In a climate that favors followers and likes over the development of meaningful relationships, networking is a critical career skill that’s more important now than it has ever been before. “The future of work demands that we establish quality relationships by connecting with each other first as fellow humans, and then as coworkers and collaborators,” Katzman says. “That’s how you become the person everyone wants to work with.”
But what actually constitutes “good” networking over mediocre coffee dates? For clarity on the proper way to approach professional connections, we asked Katzman to reveal her top networking tips even the most anti-socialites can benefit from.
Networking Tip #1: Seek Out Opportunities Every Day
Networking is an organic process, and one that begins with showing a genuine interest in people you meet socially as well as professionally. “Look for opportunities to connect every day with everyone around you,” advises Katzman. “If you craft experiences that you enjoy, the people you invite will enjoy you and themselves.” Unsure of where to start? Talk to a fellow passenger in your office elevator, or seek out events that interest you and invite people you don’t know very well.
Networking Tip #2: Eye Contact is Key
According to Katzman, the opportunity to network exists both in the office and beyond. “It starts with seeing and speaking to the people around you,” she says of initiating conversation with strangers. “Seeing and being seen is a sign of respect for the person you’re looking at.” Calm yourself (and others) before the start of any social interaction by simply making eye contact. See? Your networking skills are already off to a solid start.
Networking Tip #3: Do Your Homework
Neglecting to prepare for a coffee meeting or casual chat is the single biggest networking mistake you can make. Read up on what your colleague has been doing at work or in the community, and arrive with quality questions in mind. “If you can Google the answer, then you’re asking the wrong question,” Katzman says. If possible, take a peek at their desk, too. “People decorate their desks and cubicles with things that matter to them,” Katzman says. “Ask questions and be joyfully curious—you’ll learn a lot.”
Networking Tip #4: Avoid Conversations That Feel Too Transactional
Ideally, you’re forging a bond with a colleague that lasts well into the future, so it’s essential to learn what makes that person tick. “Create a foundation by connecting first as fellow humans, then as coworkers trying to achieve a goal,” Melanie says. Arm yourself with what Katzman calls “conversational gifts”—relevant (but not obvious) pieces of info that ultimately make the interaction more memorable. “Tuck a story or two in your pocket, like a tale from your recent travels or insight from an event,” she says. If the interaction is successful, the person you’re meeting with should leave the exchange feeling smarter because of the time they’ve spent with you.