By Eve Vlemincx.
When most people think of networking, they often picture a room full of strangers engaging in superficial small talk, exchanging business cards, while trying to sell themselves.
This kind of networking, where people focus on what they can gain from the other person, can feel uncomfortable and fake. As a result for many individuals networking can be a daunting task. According to the research of Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino it might make some people even feel dirty. Her research focusses on using others to advance one’s own interests. In other words a transactional approach and unfortunately still an all too common interpretation of networking.
Although there is nothing wrong with networking with potential clients, the instrumental view that some hold, namely seeing people as a means to an end, is where it becomes damaging. This perception deters even the most virtuous individuals from networking since they do not wish to treat people in such a manner. At the same time, it encourages those with questionable ethics to act in an unpleasant manner because they believe it is acceptable behavior, while such behavior can be considered immature and distasteful.
This article brings a different approach. Because effective networking is not about what you can get from others, but about what you can give and do for them. How do you provide value and support them. It involves building genuine relationships, where both parties can benefit in the long run. Its real goal is building authentic long-term relationships and this can expand knowledge and opportunities. To achieve this, the key is to approach networking with an other-centric mindset.
An other-centric mindset: “What can I do for you?”
An other-centric mindset is about focusing on the needs of others and what you can do for them, without expecting anything in return. It centers around the question: “What can I do for you”.
Showing genuine interest in others is key in building strong relationships that can help you in your personal and professional life. When doing so, people feel valued and appreciated and as a result they are more likely to reciprocate and support you. While this is the outcome, it should not be our goal nor focus.
With an other-mindset we make it about others, by displaying genuine interest in them.
Adopting the right mindset is crucial, since our mindset guides our behavior and determines our actions and as a results is reflected in everything we say and do. People can detect it in fractions of seconds, when we approach networking with insincerity or ulterior motives.
With a ‘me-mindset’  we focus on ourselves and our own gains, which inevitably be reflected in our interactions with others. It focusses around “What can you do for me”. In the case being, we tend to think hierarchically and only invest time in networking with those who can do something for us or network ‘up’. Such approach is transactional and makes people feel objectified. People are reduced to potential prospects and transactions. It might work on the short-term, even more so when mutual benefits can be achieved, but lacks the genuine relational and trust component needed to build authentic long-term relations.
In contrast, an ‘other-centric mindset’ focuses on building relationships with people without expecting anything in return. It’s about building relationships with others, for the sake of the others, regardless of their position or status. It involves treating people as individuals, with their own unique needs and desires. Focussing on the other person and their interests, is a key ingredient for building trust and rapport.
Imagine you are looking to expand your business. Instead of just attending networking events and handing out your business cards, you take the time to get to know people and build relationships. You may even offer helping a startup for free. Just for the sake of them indeed. As opposed to “I give this for free so they will feel obliged to return for paid services afterwards.” (which is still a self-centric transactional reasoning). They might or might not, but that becomes irrelevant because it’s about building genuine relationships and in doing so, you are setting yourself up for success in the long run.
Networking with a long-term mindset means investing in relationships and building trust. Everything starts with trust and there is no shortcut to trust, although it can be destroyed in one single act. Building trust requires networking with an open and authentic attitude, focusing on building those genuine relationships. When we invest in relationships with people, on the long run we will create positive outcomes.
It's a common misconception that introverted people would not good at networking. Introverts can be excellent networkers as they often have strong listening skills and are genuinely interested in getting to know others.
If you are an introverted person, it's essential to recognize that you may need more alone time to recharge and worth paying attention to the kind of events you attend. Some small more intimate gatherings might be more your thing instead of loud cocktail parties.
That being said, adopting an other-mindset often comes rather natural for a lot of introverts which is a superpower when it concerns networking.
What to talk about?
Time is precious and nobody cares about exchanging small talk with a stranger they never met before. However if one displays genuine curiousity and interest in others, the conversation flows more naturally.
Some ways to approach this:
Help others achieve their goals
One way to apply an other-centric mindset is to focus on helping others achieve their goals, even if those goals are not directly related to your own interests.
For example, if you meet someone who is looking for a job in a field that you are not involved in, but you happen to know someone who is, you can offer to introduce them. This shows that you are genuinely interested in helping the other person, instead of what you can gain from the interaction.
Listen more than you speak.
One of the best ways to show others that you value them and are genuinely interested in what they have to say, is by asking questions in what they have to say...
People love to talk about themselves, so by asking open-ended questions, you can encourage them to share their experiences and insights. Be sure to listen actively and ask follow-up questions to show that you are engaged and interested.
By asking people about a project they are passionate about, you instantly tap into the energy of their heart.
Be a connector
A connector is a person who brings others together and helps them establish meaningful relationships. If you know two people who could benefit from meeting each other, don't be afraid to introduce them, without expecting anything in return. However, before doing so, make sure to ask for their permission before sharing any personal information and that the introduction is relevant and meaningful.
What’s in it for me?
Networking with an other-centric approach will make it a much more pleasant experience.
An other-centric mindset does not mean sacrificing your own needs and goals. It simply means approaching networking with the intention of building genuine relationships and helping others, rather than focusing on what you can gain for yourself. By doing so, you are more likely to create a network of people who trust and support you, which ultimately can help you achieve your own goals in the long run. As mentioned above, when people trust you, they are more likely to support you and recommend you to others.
Let’s consider a real-life example of Adam Grant about a pharmaceutical sales representative named Randy. Randy build a strong network of doctors by putting their needs first. He would go out of his way to help them with anything they needed. Over time, he build strong relationships with one particular doctor that when asked to choose a pharmaceutical representative to work with, he immediately referred them to Randy. This resulted in Randy a lucrative contract with the hospital.
This example highlight show focusing on the needs of others can lead to positive outcomes in the long run.
Effective networking is all about building relationships based on trust, respect and mutual interests. Whether you are an introverted or extroverted person, you can learn to network effectively by adopting a mindset of giving and adding value. Remember that networking is a long-term game and it takes time and effort to establish meaningful relationships that are beneficial for both personal and professional growth.
By prioritizing authenticity and meaningful relationships, we can shift the focus of networking from an uncomfortable fake obligation to a valuable opportunity for connection, contribution and collaboration. If nothing else: Be the change you want to see in the world.
About the Author Eve Vlemincx is an advisor on a broad range of topics regarding legal digital transformation – innovation – leadership. In addition she is an advisor for Harvard Business Review, Executive Course Facilitator at Stanford Graduate School of Business and 5 times Stanford GSB LEAD-Award winner.