Making Connections That Count

Usually the word “networking” is found nowhere near the word “introvert,” perhaps other than to say “these two don’t mix well.” But as someone who, to paraphrase Susan Cain, prefers “the lamplit desk to the Broadway spotlight”, I believe in the power introverts have to cultivate and even nurture meaningful contacts with all sorts of people. This excerpt from my new book, Taking the Work Out of Networking: An Introvert’s Guide to Making Connections That Count.  (Simon & Schuster) details these powers.

Why Networking Matters

A contemporary definition of “networking” is to make an effort to meet and talk to a lot of people, especially in order to get information that can help you. … Wherever you fall on the introvert > extrovert spectrum, the need to network in order to develop new connections has never mattered more. A few proof points:

  • We change jobs a lot. Younger baby boomers hold nearly a dozen different jobs during their working years, and millennials are projected to hold even more.

  • Job hopping starts young. New college grads today work at twice as many companies in their first five post-grad years than in earlier eras.

  • We move a lot. People in the United States move more than eleven times in their lives.

  • More of us work for ourselves. There are nearly 41 million self-employed Americans aged twenty-one and up, and the trend is growing.

For all of these reasons—job changes, freelance work, geographical moves—it’s incumbent on most of us to make networking a regular practice. As we move through our professional lives, we’re going to need an ever-changing, ever-growing variety of people to call on.

So let me encourage you to approach networking with a sense of curiosity and open-mindedness that will help you cultivate meaningful connections without the obligation of constant contact. You too can build or grow your own brain trust: a web of connections to call on for ideas, opportunities, leads.

The Tools You Already Have

It may seem ironic, but I think we introverts have qualities that make us very effective networkers. One example: our interest in others exceeds our need to talk about ourselves. When I meet someone, I’m much more comfortable asking, “What’s new with you?” or “Tell me about yourself.” This gives me time to size up the person. A psychologist might say people enjoy my company because I let them have the floor. It is true that even as an introvert, I wanted to be liked (a default setting, apparently, for girls born in the 1950s). Whatever the reason, I always begin encounters anywhere but with myself.

Another essential for networking is being a good observer—a clear advantage we have over chattier peers. I’m forever wondering about who people are and why they are that way. What’s their demeanor, what’s their history, what animates or irritates them? I observe, and somehow, I remember and apply that knowledge.

An equally vital and underleveraged element in the introvert’s arsenal is the use of social media and digital communication to reach people in ways that may feel more natural. It’s frankly easier to connect with people both within and outside your company without the dread of working the room.  Participating in social media, even lightly, gives introverts an advantage when it comes to staying in loose touch—an essential daily habit that helps us feel connected and empowered from the safe distance of our screens.Another mark of the introvert is the ability to be comfortable being quiet, which is often misunderstood. As a thoughtful and introspective teenager, my goal was to observe and eavesdrop on adult conversations. When my parents had guests over, I was intrigued by the sotto voce remarks they would make, speculating about the (unspoken) troubles they knew their friends were having. Nothing had been uttered at the table, of course, which led me to understand that human experiences run much deeper than polite company revealed. I began to feel like an anthropologist—the outsider studying the group with a cool eye, never fully joining in. I’m convinced that all of these qualities, which introverts seem to share—feeling like an outsider, being an observer, curiosity about the stories and situations of others—inform how I’ve made my way through life. (As one scholarly study put it, “An introvert who is silent in a group may actually be quite engaged—taking in what is said, thinking about it, waiting for a turn to speak.”) I think this ability to observe and assess are some of my best assets, and maybe they’re yours, too. Whether you’re shy, humble, self-effacing, insecure, or simply hate the stereotype of networking, I want to encourage you to make the most of your own personal style in order to build your own brain trust—to start from where you are.

My long-held theory is that introverts (and other unassuming people) are well suited to building a strong web of connections because of these distinctive characteristics:

  • We’re good at listening. When I meet someone for the first time, I make a game out of getting them to talk first—to give more personal information than I do That may sound cold, but it gives me time to size them up, to assess my ability to trust them. If I get a good feeling, then I’ll open up (a little). This is a key tactic: ask questions first. You learn to sort out how much you want to invest in another person when they’re talking to (or at) you. It’s much more important to use your listening skills than to jump in to talk. And once you’ve listened, you will have options about where or how far to go in what you say.

  • We’re keen observers. Even though feeling like an outsider might seem isolating, the fact that you don’t take up all the social space (as some of our extrovert friends can do) lets others reveal who they are as you take it all in. I have a lifelong habit of observing people—what can I deduce about them from a personal meeting or from sitting across from them on the subway? Who seems excitable, self-assured, angry, depressed—and why? When I meet someone, I tend to remember a few distinctive things about them—their interests, hometown, personal style, alma mater—that help me approach people right where they are. This skill is so beneficial to connecting with someone else. You put yourself into the other person’s mindset which puts them at ease and helps you forge a meaningful encounter.

  • We’re curious. When you feel like an outsider, you assume others have mastered life—connecting with people, navigating choices, pursuing a path—in ways you have not.  Keen observers tend to put those observations to work. As a quiet kid, I was always curious about how other people navigated the world, and especially how they seemed to fit in. (A blessing, of sorts, about adulthood: you learn that very few people actually feel they fit.)

These abilities—listening, observing, being curious—are wonderful tools for connecting with people. And none of them requires you to be in the limelight.