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How to Build a Stronger Network

By Beverly E. Jones

How to Build a Stronger NetworkYou already know that a large network of relationships is vital to career success.

And from reading Job-Hunt, you understand that a big network is critical for your search because employers like to hire people with whom they share some kind of connection.

Beyond that, career opportunity is just one of the many benefits of having a strong circle of connections.

Social support can even help you live longer.

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The Clear Benefits of an Open Network

In The Blue Zones, author Dan Beuttner shared lessons from the lifestyles of some of the world’s longest-living people. His research suggests there’s a strong link between social connectedness and longevity

Beuttner said that people who regularly visit with friends or family live longer than lonely people. But the type of social connection doesn’t matter so much for longevity, just as long as you do have a supportive community.

On the other hand, the structure of your network certainly does matter if your goal is to create a stronger career and a more interesting life.

In fact, scientists who study patterns of human connection say that an "open," varied network is a key predictor of career success.

Most people have networks that are "closed," meaning that they usually hang out with the same old gang. If most of the people you know share an industry, religion or political party, the chances are that your network is closed.

With a closed network, you tend to bump into people with similar backgrounds, educations and interests. And chances are that your perception of the broader economy could be fairly narrow.

There’s comfort in your closed network, and if it’s big enough it will help you get things done. But you miss countless opportunities to expand your knowledge, spot emerging trends, escape the dangers of groupthink and find opportunities you never expected.

Sometimes it’s uncomfortable to live with an open network because people with different backgrounds don’t always get along. But there are also huge advantages.

By building a more expansive network, you’ll be able to tap into far more circles, whether you’re looking for a job or searching for new ideas.

An open network can help you understand evolving trends, connect with more professional communities and build a clearer view of the big picture. And as you grow more comfortable with your far-reaching web of connection, you may also become more innovative and creative.

How to Move Past These 4 Excuses for Not Broadening Your Network

Maybe you’ve been working hard to attend more professional events and add connections to your LinkedIn account. And here I come along telling you that your success to date is good, but it might not be quite enough.

But please hear me out!

All the work you’ve done so far has helped you meet people, practice networking and build your social skills.

So now it may be a good time for you to use those networking skills in a wider variety of situations.

The benefits of a more varied network could be tremendous!

I can imagine some of your excuses for not venturing further out because they’ve popped into my head, as well. So here are four common excuses, plus tips on why and how to reject them.

  Excuse #1: I’m not comfortable with people who are different.  

It is daunting to step out beyond your tribe. And that’s normal.

"Homophily" is the term used to describe the tendency for humans to link up with each other in ways that confirm our core beliefs and world views. It’s a sociologist’s fancy way of saying that "birds of a feather flock together."

To Move Forward:

But there’s no need to do anything drastic. As with any project, you can start opening up your network with a series of tiny steps:

  • Begin by articulating your intent to engage with a more diverse collection of people. And remind yourself of that intent any time you’re out and about.
  • Each time you’re at a gathering, look around for someone who seems different from your normal crowd. Then go over to that person.
  • To make it more likely that you’ll encounter a wider mix of people, vary your routine and attend events that are outside your norm.
  • Try taking a class. Or join a group based on an interest not related to your work, like your favorite sport, your neighborhood, or a worthy cause that’s not associated with politics.

These are painless ways to expand your network.

  Excuse #2: But it’s scary to go to places where I don’t know anyone.  

It’s tough to be alone in a crowd. And it’s even more difficult to walk up to someone who hasn’t expressed an interest in meeting you.

One reason we’re uncomfortable approaching folks we don’t know is that we are, in fact, social animals.

Our ancestors survived through the ages by cooperating with other humans, and along the way they became biologically wired with a yearning to belong. And now that need for belonging is often accompanied by a fear of rejection.

To Move Forward:

Don’t give up. In reality, our in-bred fear of social rejection is often much worse than the actual experience of being casually rejected at a social event.

I understand that worrying about being intrusive or unwelcome can feel excruciating. But from long experience, I can report that if you’re actually snubbed at a party, it might hurt less than you expect.

You don’t actually lose much when other people don’t choose to talk with you. They don’t know you, maybe they’re anxious or busy, and typically a rude encounter is more about them than about you.

People who become adept at "working a room" know that it’s a numbers game. You don’t need to be welcomed by everyone. As with sales, the process of forging new connections may require more than one try.

The more events you attend, and the more you practice the skill of introducing yourself, the easier it gets to move on from encounters that don’t produce a good fit.

  Excuse #3: I want to do something more meaningful than hang out at events.  

Sometimes it feels frivolous to party when there are so many problems in the world.

And we all need to do our bit to help.

But here’s some good networking news: one of the best ways you can build connections is by volunteering for something that matters.

To Move Forward:

A massive 2019 study in Britain by the National Council for Voluntary Organizations suggests that people who volunteer find new friends and have fun:

  • Almost 90% of volunteers said they met new people.
  • About 76% of people 34 and younger said volunteering helped them feel less isolated.
  • More than three-fourths of the volunteers reported improved mental health and well-being.
  • Most volunteers cited benefits that matched their initial reasons for volunteering, like meeting people. And they also reported additional benefits, like enjoying the experience.

Many other studies suggest that volunteering can help you make new friends and create more meaning in your life.

An excellent way to expand your circle is to volunteer with a nonprofit group, then gradually work your way to membership on a committee or board. Working with people outside your normal professional or friends circle is a terrific way to become part of a different kind of community.

  Excuse #4: I can’t bring myself to party when I’m feeling down.  

When things aren’t going well, or you just have no energy, it’s tempting to stay at home and curl up alone.

But being with other people, particularly happy people, may be exactly what you need.

In their book Connected, professors Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler explain that emotions are contagious.

And they say you can "catch" the emotional states that you observe in other people, maybe in a few weeks, or maybe in just a few seconds.

Emotions spread through human interaction because "we are biologically hardwired to mimic others outwardly, and in mimicking their outward displays, we come to adopt their inward states."

To Move Forward:

Given the contagious nature of emotions, one of the best ways you can become more upbeat is by spending time with cheerful people.

According to Christakis and Fowler, "having happy friends and relatives appears to be a more effective predictor of happiness than earning more money."

One option is to consider where happy people might gather, whether it is a bar, a church, or a ball game. And go there.

A simpler approach is to stick to your regular patterns but, everywhere you go, look around for people who seem to be optimistic. Once you spot sunny, positive people. find ways to stay in their company.

The Bottom Line:

Networking isn’t only about racking up a long list of connections within your professional field. Effective networking means talking with folks wherever you go, learning from a wider range of people, finding more ways to connect, and nurturing a variety of relationships. As your network becomes more open, you’ll find new friends, ideas, and opportunities.

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About the author...

Beverly E. Jones is a Job-Hunt Networking Contributor. Bev is an executive coach, and a former lawyer and corporate executive. In addition, she is an active writer and speaker, and the author of “Think Like an Entrepreneur, Act Like a CEO.” Her career podcast, “Jazzed About Work,” appears on NPR.org. Visit her website, Clearways Consulting, and Find Bev on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.