In my day business, I do a lot of networking, which means that I attend various events, meet people, learn about what they do, and figure out how I can help them, either directly or by referring them on to someone else. Learning how to network has taught me a lot about how to connect with people and become more involved in the communities that I am part of. In fact, I’d have to say that it’s because of networking that I’ve come to recognize my connection to the community, and as a result I have felt a sense of responsibility beyond taking care of my own needs. This isn’t all that surprising when you understand that networking is more than just passing business cards around.
When you think of networking, what first comes to mind? Do you imagine a bunch of people in business clothes exchanging cards and trying to sell something to each other? If so, you aren’t alone in thinking that way about networking. Many people associate networking with sales or tend to think of it as strictly a business activity that has no associated service component. However, I find that if anything, what networking can do is teach people how to become more aware of each other and the needs that all of us have. It can also, when done right, create an opportunity for equity in the community.
One of the organizations I belong to is the Oregon Association of Minority Entrepreneurs (OAME). The founder, Sam Brooks, states at each meeting that everyone is included and that the only people not welcome are those who discriminate against others. The organization is set up to provide opportunities for people of color and women-owned businesses, and it has an annual youth conference, where it teaches teenagers about what it takes to become a business owner. OAME also offers microloans to start-ups and small businesses and provides some consulting. There are other organizations who have similar focuses, such as Mercy Corp. All of these integrate networking into their activities as a way of helping people connect with the resources they need.
Networking is a state of mind that initially starts out with a desire to get business. People attend networking events in the hopes that they’ll meet people who need their services. But eventually, that state of mind matures to a recognition that such meetings are really opportunities to discover what someone needs in order to help that person. The networker starts their day out with the question, “Who can I help today?” and this question isn’t restricted to networking meetings, but instead spills over into everyday life. The networker starts paying closer attention to other people and discovers what they need, and then connects them to the resources and people who can help meet those needs.
Networking also teaches you to recognize that you have a community of people you can connect with. When you are part of a network, you are connected to a variety of people who offer a variety of services, but you are also connected to them as allies and friends. You learn how to share what you need with them as well as discover what they need. These are skills that many people don’t have because of the increasing disconnection of our culture. Nonetheless, these skills can be learned, and you don’t necessarily need to be in a sales profession or self-employed to learn them. All you really need is to feel a sense of curiosity about other people and a desire to help in whatever way you can.
I feel that networking teaches people a sense of social responsibility for the community they are a part of. You learn how to connect with people you don’t know, and in that process you learn how to acknowledge where they come from as well as their cultural and ethnic backgrounds. You also develop relationships that become stronger over time, because all of you recognize that you want to help each other succeed. You feel a sense of responsibility, an awareness that you need to think about more than yourself and your own needs. Networking needn’t be limited to business to be effective. It can start with the simple desire to reach out to people around you and get to know them better.
The first skill of networking is listening. Listening involves learning to still your own thoughts while you listen so that you can hold presence and really hear what the other person is saying. As you learn to listen to people, you also learn how to recognize what they need in what they say. Much of the time, what people are communicating about is what they need.
The second skill of networking is asking questions. You need to be curious and open-minded and also able to listen to the answers to your questions. I like to ask people what they need, but I also like to ask about who they are and what they do. These questions allow me to discover the person in the answers that are provided.
The third skill of networking is the desire to help. You aren’t connecting to people for no reason at all. Ideally, you want to be of genuine service to your community. This means that as you get to know someone, you try to think of ways to help the person, provided they actually want your help. If they want the help, you might help them directly or you might refer them to know someone you know who is qualified to do so.