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The 4 Essential Skills for Networking Success

By Beverly Jones

What Is Networking and Why Is It So Important to Your Career?The essence of networking is getting to know new people, turning acquaintances into friends, and nurturing friendships you already have.

Being connected to other human beings is vital to your health and happiness.

And having a large and varied network of relationships is extraordinarily important to every phase of your career.

When you launch a job search, broadening your network should be the cornerstone of your plan since employers prefer to hire people with whom they share some kind of connection.

While online tools like LinkedIn are very helpful for networking, engaging with people face-to-face might be where the real breakthroughs happen.

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Sometimes in-person, face-to-face networking involves attending professional events. But it also includes engaging with people throughout the normal course of your life, whether you’re at the gym, a community meeting, or a cocktail party.

In any gathering, there are opportunities for making connections, and you never know which ones might eventually lead to opportunities.

But perhaps you dread the thought of meeting, greeting, mingling, and chatting?

If you don’t feel comfortable putting yourself forward in social situations, you’re not alone. Most people feel like that, at least some of the time.

Getting past the discomfort, and even having fun, is easier than you think if you master these four socializing skills.

4 Skills That Help You "Work" the Room Comfortably and Successfully

  1. Embrace Small Talk  

Many people say they hate networking because they can’t stand the small talk.

“Small talk” is the polite chitchat at the start of a social interaction. It involves an exchange of inconsequential remarks, like:

  • “I got soaked on the way in, but at least rain is good for my garden.”
  • “Have you tried the crab cakes? They are really good”
  • “How do you know (insert name of hosts)?

It is easy to dismiss small talk as meaningless, because by definition it does not involve communication about anything important.

But even though the content of a small talk exchange may be trivial, the ritual of exchanging casual remarks plays in big role in helping people to connect.

When you bump into an acquaintance or meet someone new, engaging in a series of trifling remarks can be the first step in building trust and rapport. Small talk is a bonding ritual, and it helps people feel comfortable with one another.

Even if we understand that it is part of the game, a reason many of us avoid schmoozing is that we believe we are not good at it. When it is our turn to talk, we may not think of anything clever to say. And when we make an insignificant remark, it might sound petty to our own ears.

If you tend to squirm when it’s time to chitchat, try these steps to move past your aversion:

  • As you head out to an event, think about a few noncontroversial topics to mention, like the weather, a local sports team, or the theme of the gathering.
  • When you approach an opportunity for small talk, remind yourself that content does not matter. The listener is likely to respond to your goodwill and your effort to connect, not to the words you use.
  • Find openings to practice. Build your skill by voicing pleasantries in low risk situations, like when you’re talking with a salesclerk or waiting in line at the office coffee machine.

The more relaxed you become with small talk, the more adept you will be when hobnobbing at professional events. And you may enjoy other benefits as well. Research (link at the bottom of the article) suggests that even minimal social interactions like small talk help fulfill our basic human need to belong.

  2. Smile!  

In his immensely popular 1936 book, How to Win Friends & Influence People, Dale Carnegie said your smile "is a messenger of your goodwill" and a simple way to make a good impression.

He advised readers to smile even when they don’t feel like it, because action and feeling go together. He said that if you smile, you will feel happier, and soon people around you might as well.

In the years since Carnegie offered his advice, psychologists have undertaken countless studies of the human smile (link at the bottom of the article). And while there are caveats -- because the message that your smile conveys may depend on the situation -- modern research affirms that "smile!" is excellent networking advice.

Here are reasons to smile when you engage with other people:

  • Smiling is healthy and makes you feel good.

    Smiling can increase the release of endorphins and other mood-enhancing hormones. It can calm your heart rate and blood pressure, contribute to a heightened sense of well-being, and lead to improved health.
  • You will look good.

    Research says that when you smile, there's a better chance other people will perceive you as competent, attractive, likable, and memorable.

    They are more likely to find you approachable. And they might even think you look younger.
  • Smiling is contagious.

    We are hard wired to mirror each other's happy looks. When you smile as you meet someone, they may automatically return your expression.

    More importantly, as you exchange smiles with another person, the two of you connect in a more fundamental way, with positivity flowing between you.
  • Smiling starts to feel natural.

    The most powerful smiles are genuine, emanating from deep within you. But social smiles – those that require you to summon up a positive feeling -- are effective as well.

    The more often you practice on the inside to feel good and generate a happy facial expression, the more likely it is that you'll experience spontaneous smiles.

For inspiration, think of a happy event -- something or someone that makes you smile (in a positive way). Remember a great picture of your kids or significant other, a adorable kitten or puppy, or a cute squirrel or chipmunk. Maybe when your favorite team won an important game. Or the punch line from your favorite joke. Whatever makes you smile when you think about it works.

  3. Listen Mindfully  

Not everyone can be a smooth talker.

Often effective communication is less about what you say and more about how you listen.

According to distinguished psychologist Ellen Langer, the skill that can set you apart from the noisy crowd is “mindful listening.”

Dr. Langer and her Harvard colleagues have long been examining the difference between “mindful” and “mindless” activity, and exploring what that difference could mean to the way we live and work.

We all engage in mindless activity, like when we’re driving our car and suddenly realize that we have no recollection of the last 20 miles. And we know what it’s like when other people are mindless, like the waiter who repeats the specials from rote but does not seem to hear our questions.

But, when we are mindful, we are fully present, paying attention to the current situation, without feeling judgmental.

When you listen in a mindful way, you concentrate on the speaker. You make eye contact and you turn your body in their direction. And you keep refocusing on what they say, even if it means you have to quiet the voice in your head, fighting the urge to interrupt.

Neuroscience and philosophers tell us that people go through life aching to have their concerns acknowledged and their presence felt. When you truly listen, you meet that need and connect with the speaker in a special way, even though it might not seem like it at the time.

Dr. Langer suggests that listening is so fundamental to human interaction that you can usually tell if a person is actually hearing you, or is just waiting for their turn to talk.

Dr. Langer's research demonstrates that if you meet someone and really listen, without passing judgment, you are more likely to be seen as genuine, charismatic, and even attractive.

Learning to be a stronger listener is like developing your physical strength. You “build” your listening “muscle” by noticing your reactions to a speaker and then putting them aside.

For example, let’s imagine that an acquaintance verbally attacks your favorite government leader. You instantly think “that’s not true!” But rather than butting in, put that defensive thought aside and focus on hearing what else the person might say.

You can sharpen your mindful listening skill by practicing it throughout the day in low stress situations, like when you’re talking with a barista or sales clerk.

For just a minute or two, give your normal concerns a rest and shift your focus to the person who is talking.

  4. Ask questions  

A good way to connect with other people is to ask questions.

During the small talk phase of an interaction, your questions should be non-controversial and worded gently, so the other person does not feel defensive.

You could start out with simple factual questions, like: “Do you live around here?”

Or you might ask for an opinion on an appropriate topic, like “Did you enjoy the speaker’s remarks?”

As a conversation continues, you can promote your state of active listening by asking more open-ended questions, meaning that they can’t be answered with a simple fact, or a “yes” or “no.” You might ask, “What was your favorite part of the speech?”

When you’re networking, keep your questions positive. Focus on strengths, goals, and solutions, rather than on the negative aspects of a situation.

The Bottom Line

Connecting with other people, in-person, is something you can learn. And the more you practice your socializing skills, the easier networking will become. In each situation, start by setting your attitude, reminding yourself that these people may feel as shy as you do, and you wish them well. Focus on each person as you engage, and just move politely along when it feels like there’s no more to be said.

Small Talk: Social Functions

There's Magic in Your Smile

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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.