Investing in Yourself: Socializing and Networking

investRecently, I discussed the value of investing in yourself – putting time and money into improving you, not building assets. Today, we’ll look at one area of investing in yourself as part of an ongoing series on the topic, spread out once per weekday over two weeks.

I’m a rather introverted person. When I’m in a group of people, my gut instinct is to clam up, be quiet, and sink into the woodwork (unless, of course, I’m very comfortable with most of the group). It takes genuine effort for me to speak up in a group situation, and for much of my adult life I simply wouldn’t do it. I’d just sit there, waiting for someone else to talk and quite often not engaging at all.

This antisocial streak was hindering me, and I knew it. A large group of friends and associates are incredibly valuable to have – they can provide support to you in countless ways and you can provide support back to them as well. By sitting there like a bump on a log, not only was I not actively working towards building friendships and relationships, I was actually sending off a negative vibe to people.

There were two books that really turned things around for me: Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People and Keith Ferrazzi’s Never Eat Alone. These books actually have a lot in common – they both focus on how exactly to effectively interact with other people. Carnegie’s book focuses on the actual interactions themselves – how do you actually step up and converse with someone? Ferrazzi’s book continues that thought – how do you build a conversation into a relationship that has value? They’re both filled with very specific tips that you can start applying right off the bat.

With that information in hand, I had a good idea of what to do – I just needed to get started doing it. Here are some direct actions you can take to start investing in building a network of friends and acquaintances that actually have value, both to you and to the person you’re connected to.

Engage in activities that enable a lot of interactions with a lot of people.
The first step is to simply meet people whose interests overlap with your own. Sure, you may know people through work, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg – there are many, many people out there to meet, to know, and to develop friendships and relationships with. Here are some tips for getting out that front door.

Identify social activities that mesh with your interests. Like reading books? Join a book club. Like outdoor activities? Join an outdoor club. Curious about the community? Go to any sort of community activity – check at city hall for the community calendar. Obsessed with your career? Go to meetings and conventions related to your professional area. Join Meetups for any activity of interest to you. Most large cities offer a lot of opportunity to explore whatever interest you may have.

Don’t give up on it after just one meeting. The biggest mistake that people make when joining a potentially interesting group is that they give up when they go to the first meeting, the people there already seem to know each other, and there are ongoing things that they’re not familiar with. Give it a few meetings. Ask questions if you don’t know what’s going on. Don’t just assume that you’ll immediately be part of any ongoing social circle at this group – give it time to happen.

Don’t be afraid to be the first to talk – but don’t be the only one talking.
One intense challenge for me is to know how to deal with a group of people when no one is talking. Everyone’s experienced them – those periods of silence when no one has quite yet taken the initiative to start a conversation or to bring up a new topic. That’s the perfect time to get a new conversation rolling and to be noticed by others, so take advantage of it. Here are some tips.

Realize that everyone else is probably feeling as uncomfortable as you are. If there’s a silence in the room, it’s probably a good indication that many of the people there don’t know what to say next and are feeling some of your discomfort. By stepping up and getting the ball rolling, you often attract a positive response from others.

If all else fails, ask a contextual question. Most of the time, I don’t know what to say, so I’ll use what’s going on as the context for a question. I’ll ask a question about the group itself, the event we’re engaged in, the book the book club is reading, or so on. If you’re in a very small group, current events can be a good topic to break the silence.

If you notice you’re the only one talking, it’s probably time to give someone else an opportunity. In other words, trim your point to a close and try to finish by encouraging someone else to talk. One good way to do that is to finish with a “What do you all think?”

Ask questions.
The most effective way I’ve found to get a conversation going or to continue it is to get a person to talk about themselves. The easiest way to pull off that trick is to ask a question – create a situation where it makes social sense for that person to begin discussing themselves. Here’s some advice on how to do that.

Ask a question that the person would feel comfortable answering. If you’re in a book club, questions about the book you’re reading are always fair game. If they’ve brought up their children or family, cursory and positive questions about that topic are fair, too. In general, questions that are positive in tone and aren’t too personal are always worthwhile. Compliment someone, for example, and ask where they got that item or idea.

Listen to the responses. Listen to what they’re saying. Try to understand their viewpoint and experiences – they’re going to be different than your own. If you find yourself getting bored, then you’re either discussing a topic that truly doesn’t interest you or you’re not clicking with that person, which is fine, but the first step to a positive connection is to listen to what they say and try to figure out what they mean.

Use the responses for follow-up questions if you don’t have a compelling idea of your own to interject. If you don’t know how to respond to what they’ve just said, figure out the part that’s troubling you and turn it into a question again, allowing them to explain further. It not only clearly shows that you’re listening and are engaged, but it gives the person a greater chance to expound their thoughts in a positive light.

Focus on the people that interest you.
There are going to be people you are uncomfortable interacting with, either for obvious reasons or for reasons you can’t quite put your finger on. You don’t have to interact with them. Instead, focus on the people who give you a positive feeling – people who click with you and engage you. These people will be much more likely to build up an actual relationship with you, whether it be a friendship or a business relationship. Here are some tips.

At first, interact with a lot of people. Listen to who’s talking and figure out which people are actually interesting to you. When you see people standing alone and not talking, talk to them. When there’s a group talking, listen in. Spend some time interacting with as many people as you can. The reason is to figure out which ones you may click with.

Gravitate gradually towards the people you find most interesting. It might be the person talking the most at the center of the room, or it might be the person sitting quietly off to the side. Keep conversing with the people that click with you. Don’t be afraid to move on if they exhibit behaviors that make you uncomfortable.

Once you’ve narrowed it down, focus on building up ties with the people that fit best with you. Exchange contact information with one or two of them if it feels like you might really have something in common. If that doesn’t feel appropriate yet, just make sure that you have opportunities to meet those people again at other, similar events – come to the next group meeting, for example.

Follow up.
If you’ve actually traded contact information with someone in a genuine fashion, meaning that it was because of a desire to actually further exchange ideas, follow up. Don’t just let it dry there on the vine. I usually try to contact new people I’ve met once every few weeks – for example, I recently was elected to a community board, so I’m slowly putting forth an effort to get to know everyone on that board.

Wait a bit, then make a contact. I usually find that for most people, a follow up email that’s non-fluffy is worthwhile. I try to recall what we’ve talked about (I usually jot it down on the back of whatever contact info I get), do some research on the topic, and continue the conversation in some regard. I always make sure to include a reminder of who I am as well, usually starting it off that way (“This is Trent Hamm. We met recently at the Smith’s fire benefit dinner and we discussed some changes in the town’s sidewalk policy….”).

If they don’t respond back, don’t push it. Just wait for another opportunity to meet that person in a social environment and chat about it. Quite often, people intend to respond but just get busy with things – it’s often not a snub. However, you should make sure not to make yourself a nuisance.

If you can easily do a favor for someone, do it. Quite often, opportunities will come up where someone is in obvious need of a helping hand. If you have the opportunity to help out, especially if it’s easy for you, do so. Helping out the people around you is the single best thing you can do to build a solid relationship with the people you’re helping – plus, you get the opportunity to make someone else’s life better.

Dabble in hosting social events.
One great opportunity to build and cement relationships and friendships is to host small social gatherings. I’m pretty partial to the dinner party or barbecue, myself – inviting people into your home and serving them food is a great way to get people to open up and connect to each other.

Invite a diversity of people. If you have a gathering, it’s good to invite people who do know each other and people who don’t. I usually try to keep the number small and make sure that everyone there knows at least someone else besides me, but ideally not everyone knows everyone else. If you don’t know that many people, just invite who you know and keep the number relatively low.

Try very hard to accept any reciprocal invitations. If you get invited in return, make a special effort to go to that event. Social invitations are more valuable than you think and they’re often a sign of acceptance into a larger group. Make an effort to go to any invite you get, especially if it’s the first one.

Keep the communication going – don’t let it die off.
Once you’ve built a connection with someone, don’t let it fall apart because you’re too busy. It only takes a few minutes every once in a while to keep a relationship healthy, so take the time to do it.

Keep in contact regularly – a handwritten note on a special occasion is a great way to do it. Send out New Year’s/winter seasonal cards to everyone you can, with a quick handwritten note inside greeting them. One year, I made up almost three hundred of these and it was worth the effort. Similarly, if you find out someone’s made a career change, bought a house, got married, or had a child, make sure that you pop a handwritten note and perhaps a small gift their way.

Send quick emails semi-regularly. Some people do this with their cell phone, but I find that to be kind of intrusive for just touching base with someone. I often use a quick personally-written email just asking how they’re doing and maybe delivering a few sentences on what I’m up to or what’s currently interesting to me. I don’t do this too regularly – every few months or so – but it does a great job of helping a relationship to not wither and die over a long period of time.

The real key, though, is to build a solid number of meaningful relationships and friendships and make sure they don’t wither – these are the people who you support and will support you when you need it. The first step is up to you.

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