Introvert's guide to networking
The first step to genuine acquaintances is figuring out what you care about and then going to social situations where those things are discussed in abundance, thinks Lauri Järvilehto, Professor of Practice at Aalto Ventures Program.
Networking is a concept that gets a bad rap, and for a good reason.
The whole idea of subjecting other people into instruments for your success, whether it be by career progress, making sales or some other transaction, is somehow deeply inhuman. Yet, as Mark Granovetter noted already in early 1970s, most opportunities in life arise not out of the people you know well but what he called weak ties – that is to say, acquaintances.
So how to get acquainted if you hate the very idea of networking? The best way to get to know people is to be genuine. That means two things.
First, you should figure out what you really care about. In recent years I came to discover that I was actually a kind of a "closet introvert". I seem to come out as talkative – but only in contexts where there is a shared interest, say philosophy, startups or music. I've never been able to wrap my head around small talk. Why would people talk about something they don't care about?
Outside of a shared context, I become a mute brick. Therefore I think the first step to genuine acquaintances is figuring out what you care about and then going to social situations where those things are discussed in abundance. For me, these things are scientific conferences, startup events and concerts. There aren't many things I fear as much as a cocktail party. Unless it's about a cool topic. The second thing is, following Immanuel Kant, to treat people as ends in themselves. In other words, the value of every human being is equal, and equally grand. To this end, meeting people should not be about what you can get out of it, or about flaunting your excellence, but trying to figure out how to be helpful.
I'll never forget meeting the celebrity CEO of a billion dollar company for the first time as a fledgling entrepreneur: his first words were "how can I help you?" The best way to figure out where you can help people and provide value is to listen. As the saying goes, we have two ears and one mouth for a reason. Interestingly enough, in writing about dialogue (that most people think is a form of speech), William Isaacs points out that the most important skill for genuine dialogue is to listen. So mum's the word.
When I was starting Filosofian Akatemia, I would meet potential customers with a booklet and a set of dozen or so questions. Then, for the first thirty minutes of an hour-long meeting, I would sit down and just ask questions. Apart from giving my name and the name of the company, I wouldn't say anything about us. Whenever something came up where I thought our services could produce value, I underlined that comment in my notes. Then it was easy to link up what we could do with whatever the potential customer needed.
But there's a caveat to using a method like this, whether it's to make sales or to meet new people. You have to also be prepared to walk away politely, if no connection is made. Every now and then, I simply couldn't identify a need we could service. I ended up recommending a competitor's services and wishing the potential customer a nice day. And walking out of the encounter feeling I'd done the right thing. I think some even called us later when they needed something we could actually do.
Ultimately networking is not about maximizing the amount of business cards you have, or about using other people as stepping stones to advance a career or a business goal. We are social animals by nature, and meeting people is indeed a basic psychological need for people, as Richard Ryan and Edward Deci discovered in the mid-1970s.
But meeting people satisfies the psychological need only if you can do it by remaining genuine. If people become instruments, if the social setting requires for you to pose as something you're not, the inherent social nature built into every human flips into a burden. Generating genuine social ties is a psychological need we all have. The upside of it is that by finding people who share your interests and to whom you can be helpful may also end up being good for your more pragmatic needs vis a vis Granovetter's idea of weak ties.
And even if it didn't, so what? At least you'll get to have interesting conversations.
Lauri Järvilehto is a Professor of Practice at Aalto University's Aalto Ventures Program.