Some people will tell you we’re more connected than we’ve ever been before, thanks to technology such as cellphones and social media. It’s a safe bet that you’re connected to many clients through Facebook®, LinkedIn®, Instagram®, and other platforms.

But is your digital network a real network? By that, we mean do you truly have relationships with your online “friends” and “connections”? There’s a big difference between pressing “like” on a photo of someone’s child and actually knowing the child’s name and age.

The lazy way to stay in touch

As we become more dependent upon digital channels to keep in touch with the important people in business and our personal lives, we replace deep connections with superficial relationships. We may say we have 462 friends on Facebook, but how many of them would we choose to confide in or invite for dinner?

When it comes to our business connections, digital networks make it easy for us to be lazy, believing we’re doing a good job of staying in touch. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know a comment on a social media post pales in comparison to an in-person conversation or a phone call. That’s why it’s so important for us to make the effort to socially refresh our networks by taking time to surround ourselves with clients, prospects, and colleagues.

Networking isn’t what you think

Perhaps you think we’re describing what’s come to be called “networking” — those uncomfortable efforts to walk into a roomful of strangers, exchange business cards, and stammer through conversations in the hope that they might lead to a new client relationship. True networking is less about meeting new people, and more about constantly and meaningfully staying in touch with your clients, prospects, and colleagues. 1

The most effective networking grows out of developing genuine relationships with others, regardless of the reason you’re trying to connect with them. It’s far more than an awkward exchange of business cards. Instead, it involves approaching and treating the other person as a friend and engaging in friendly conversation that will deepen the relationship. 2

Attitude is everything

The key to effective networking is the attitude you bring. If you begin with a real interest in people and what’s going on with their lives, and a genuine curiosity rather than an aggressive, mercenary focus on growing business, you’ll actually accomplish more. 3

By setting out to build a handful of friendships instead of a lengthy contact database, you’ll be able to accumulate quality contacts rather than a large quantity of low-value names and emails. People who network effectively rarely begin the process by talking about business or themselves. In fact, the most effective networkers do very little talking. Instead, they listen. They ask questions and get the other person to talk about themselves. Most people enjoy doing that. Go into initial contacts with a plan to not talk about business (unless the other person encourages you to do so). If you show a genuine interest, you’ll have plenty of future opportunities to use your sales skills. 4

The psychology of trust

When you want to build lasting connections with other people, whether your goal is friendship, business, or romance, you need to establish a sense of mutual trust. When people feel that others will not attempt to deceive or damage them in any way, they’re more willing to connect at a deeper level. Psychologists identify four critical factors in establishing trust between people:

• Sharing a common set of values and a respect for the other person’s differing values.

• Developing integrity through degrees of honesty, consistency, and predictability.

• Having a sense of mutuality, in which each party can rely upon the other.

• Creating a sense of commitment that there’s a purpose for the relationship. 5

In simple terms, when we begin to establish any kind of new relationship, we want to be confident that the other person is kind, ethical, has the ability to make the relationship work, and behaves in ways that are comfortable and predictable. 6

Building trust

As an ethical businessperson, you are no doubt seeking to build relationships — business and social — that embody this kind of trust. While much of that comes back to the personal integrity you and the other party exhibit, there are some strategies you can use to foster that kind of trust, whether you’re meeting someone in person or over the phone:

• Ask insightful questions that give the other party an opportunity to share meaningful information. When someone has a genuine interest in us, we’re more likely to trust them.

• Choose thoughtful questions that demonstrate curiosity and show that you focus on more than surface issues.

• Give them your full attention. People can tell whether you’re really listening to what they have to say. Maintain eye contact, don’t interrupt, and ask follow-up questions that show you heard what they were saying.

Did you notice that all those strategies involve saying less and listening more? That’s not a coincidence. 7

One of the best ways to build trust is to do the kind of networking that has no obvious benefit for you. That involves introducing people to each other when they might benefit from the connection. For example, if you know someone who mentions she’s planning to sell her home, and you know a realtor you trust, connecting the two of them will help both, and they will see you as a helpful individual who is acting outside of your own self-interest. 8

Reaching across the gaps

One challenge in networking these days is the reality that there are several generational groups in the workforce, and people from these different groups often struggle when it comes to connecting with the others. By knowing this and taking the lead in creating connections across the generation gaps, you’ll be better able to build a strong social network.

In particular, Baby Boomers and Gen Xers benefit when they reach out to Millennial and the Gen Z groups. Developing these connections can strengthen their careers and build their business, while giving the satisfaction of helping others who are earlier in their own careers. Plus, it’s likely that younger contacts will return the favor.

A great strategy for networking with younger colleagues or prospects is making a point to introduce them to other people in the room you know. Before you make the introduction, share some information about that person, so they find it easier to continue the conversation. If you know someone who would be a great mentor for the younger person, or who might be able to share knowledge or contacts that would be beneficial, introduce them. They want to build their own networks, and your efforts demonstrate your respect for them. 9

Building your social network by focusing on others is a particularly effective and satisfying strategy. It may involve more work than pressing the “like” button on social media, but in the long run, it will have a profound effect on both your business and your personal relationships.

Footnotes

1 Weiss, Phyllis, “How Boomers Can Best Network With Millennials and Gen X’ers.” Nextavenue.org, July 18, 2016

2 “Steps to Seriously Improve Your Networking Skills,” entrepreneur.com, May 14, 2015

3 Weiss, op. cit.

4 entreprenuer.com, op. cit.

5 Clark, Lexis, “Trust versus Mistrust: The 4 Factors Which Define a Trusting Relationship,” positivepsycholo­gyprogram.com, December 22, 2016

6 Waytz, Adam, “Friend or Foe? A Psychological Perspective on Trust,” video, kellogg.northwestern.edu, undated

7 entreprenuer.com, op. cit.

8 ibid.

9 Weiss, op. cit

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