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How To Turn A Casual Relationship Into A Real Relationship

It’s the beginning of a New Year. If you haven’t already blown your New Year’s resolutions, you might be waffling on them. One of the more common resolutions for professionals is to “build their network.” Building your network is important because of the network effect. The larger your network, the more valuable it becomes. Developing more relationships and strengthening your existing relationships provides you with more opportunities.

That’s not to say that every opportunity will lead to something you want – a new job, a new client, an invitation to an exclusive event – but the more opportunities you can develop, the more chances you have at an opportunity working in your favor. Hence the need to grow your network.

The problem with growing your network, it that you may have deep anxieties related to networking. This usually manifests itself in a number of methods:

  • I’m not good at networking.
  • I don’t like making small talk.
  • I don’t know what to say.
  • I don’t know very many people.
  • It feels like schmoozing.
  • I’m not interesting.
  • I’m not confident enough to talk to strangers.

These are very real emotions. But they are also self-defeating. If you continually tell yourself that you’re not good at an activity, that you don’t enjoy it, that you’ll never be good at it – it’s highly unlikely you will ever find any degree of success as it relates to that activity. At some point, you have to overcome these fears. You can’t let imposter syndrome hold you back.

Network Categories

The first problem is that many people just lump everyone they know into some sort of amorphous platonic idea of a network. Which is about as useful as a platonic toilet when you need to use the bathroom. Not every relationship or connection you have with people in your life is equal. Stop thinking of them that way. Instead, think of your network in a number of categories.

  1. Everyone – Everyone you’ve interacted with. In person at events, social networks, etc. Everyone you’ve ever gotten a business card from.
  2. True Network – Family, friends, alumni, business network, etc. These are people you really know. Quick test of your “true network,” how many people would actually return your call if you left a message for them?
  3. Mentors  – Those more experienced people who have taken it upon themselves to put up with your crap in order to help you mature and grow as a person/professional. Hint: A mentoring relationship involves learning, dialog, and challenge. If that last one isn’t there, find some new mentors.

These are just a few categories. There are others. But these are the important one to focus on at the moment. If you you’re looking to expand your network and you and don’t know where to start, you might be tempted to look up your local “young professionals” group and go to the soonest networking event they have. Don’t.

Avoid Networking Events

Explicitly branded “networking events” suck. More than likely, most of the people are there for some sort of schmoozing, B2B or job opportunity. Anything that advertises itself as a “networking event” is something you want to avoid. They’re usually just not that good. Instead you should be looking for socials / cocktails parties / events / seminars related to a hobby/activity that you have a personal interest in.

These types of events aren’t explicitly for networking, but do have a high potential for networking to occur. This is because you already have a baseline connection with everyone there. If you go to a fundraiser in support of the local wildlife refuge, it’s a good chance that everyone else there is in someway related to helping the environment or is active outdoors. You have a natural opening, “the environment,” with which to approach people.

At this point, you just need to be ready to:

  • Start a conversation
  • Exchange business cards
  • Take the initiative to extend the relationship

Anyone can get business cards. That’s all that people do at business events. Where people seem to get tripped up is on starting a conversation and then extending a new relationship from the “Everyone” category to “True Network” category.

midsize handshake

Start A Conversation

I covered how to get better at small talk last month. If you want an in-depth breakdown, go read that post. I’m just going to reproduce the part on initiating a conversation using the ARE Technique: anchor, reveal, encourage.

Anchor

An anchor is simply a shared observation. Either something related to the event you are at, or a topic that is on hand. Even the dreaded “weather option.” Don’t worry stressing over finding something incredibly interesting to say. Almost everyone realizes that these initial forays are simply the polite and necessary first steps required before you move into substantial conversation.

“They really laid out the red carpet for this year’s party.”

Reveal

The reveal is merely sharing something about yourself, that is related to the anchor. By offering up something about yourself, you are extending yourself out to the other person and providing them with something to respond to.

“There is a much larger crowd than there was when I attended the party last year.”

Encourage

Time to get the other person involved. Ask questions related to your reveal that seek to find out if the other person has some connection to your reveal. These questions usually start off with something like:

  • Tell me about…
  • Have you ever…
  • What brought you to…
  • How do you know…
  • When did you…
  • Why…

“Is this your first time coming to the party?”

At this point you should be able to push the conversation along, either continuing to use the ARE technique, or segueing into a more in-depth conversation.

  • “It’s your first time? How did you hear about it/who invited you?”
  • “You were here last year as well? I’m surprised we didn’t bump into each other. Did you see/Do you know…?”

It’s a very simple technique that almost everyone should be able to use immediately. After that, try and find more common ground and ways you can connect via shared interests or relationships. Again, if you’re at some type of social event that is focused on a specific topic or area of interest, you should have a topic (wildlife, running, election, etc) readily available to discuss. By the time you’re done with your conversation with this other person, you should know if it’s someone you want to try and develop a relationship.

If so, suggest exchanging cards and grabbing lunch or coffee sometime. No one is ever not going to accept your card. They might not pay it much attention or throw it away, but at least they’ll take it.

Remember, this is about creating as many opportunities as possible. Not every opportunity will come to fruition. That’s why it’s important to try and develop as many opportunities as possible. No one gives up on fishing if they don’t catch anything with their first cast. Don’t give up on developing relationships either.

Extend The Relationship

If you managed to exchange business cards with a few people, congratulations! You’ve added someone to your Everyone network category (and so has the other person). That was easy. The difficult part is to take your relationships with people past the Everyone category and to the True Network category. That’s where mutually beneficial relationships begin to develop. So you’ve met the person, exchanged business cards. So how to follow-up? A couple suggestions:

Hey [Name],

Great seeing you the other day at [event]. I really enjoyed speaking with you about [stuff they mentioned they were working on]. I wanted to grab lunch and speak with you more about [things tangentially related to stuff mentioned].

I’m available next week on [give a couple options here]. If that doesn’t work for you, let me know what’s convenient and I’ll work around your schedule.

or

Hey [Name],

Hope you’re having a great week. I spent some more time thinking about [issues the other person was having at work] at [event]. I had some ideas that I think may be able to help you out with [issues]. Let’s grab lunch and we can go over them.

I’m available next week on [give a couple options here]. If that doesn’t work for you, let me know what’s convenient and I’ll work around your schedule.

Both of the examples reference where you spoke, what you spoke about, set an agenda for extending the conversation, and provide dates to make it happen. All of which is much more likely to get a response than a bland “let’s grab lunch sometime.”

Notice that in both responses, the focus is on what you can do to help them – not vice versa. If your first thoughts upon contacting this person ran to:

  • Talk a lot about yourself to trying to impress others
  • Hope people feel sorry for you
  • Ask for favors

It’s highly unlikely that you’re going to develop strong relationships with other people. Instead, you’ll come across as greedy and self-involved. More often than not, transitioning someone from the “Everyone” category into the “True Network” category requires you helping other people. 

A Deal of Good

BenFranklinDuplessisI do not pretend to give such a deed; I only lend it to you. When you […] meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity. I hope it may thus go thro’ many hands, before it meets with a Knave that will stop its Progress. This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money. -Benjamin Franklin, A Letter To Benjamin Webb

“Pay it forward.” “Today you, tomorrow me.” “The Golden Rule.” Whatever you want to call it, putting others first is one of the most reliable ways to build trust and develop relationships with other people.

No one likes a leech, a hanger-on, or someone begging for scraps. But people do appreciate others who offer to help without being asked and seek nothing in return (see: When is the last time you emailed a friend to say, “How can I help you?”). It shows a genuine interest in what the other person is doing. But it does need to be a genuine interest. If you’re just faking it, you probably won’t follow through all the way. And the other person will likely be able to tell that you are faking it.

If you do want to add this person into your “True Network” – that is people who will return your call, give you advice, lend a helping hand – you have to show that you are willing to do the same AND you have to do it first.

Building your network and developing relationships is about putting other people first. It is about being a servant.

If you are in professional services of any kind – lawyer, accountant, consultant, whatever – you are a servant. It’s right there in the description, professional services. Yes, you might have a white collar, but so does a priest under his cassock. You only exist so that other people may do better, achieve more, strive higher.

Retaining the mindset of a servant – humility, putting other’s needs before your own, will go a long way towards building a “True Network” of people you can rely upon.

If you’re a new professional just getting your feet under you and you want more of this type of advice, you should pick up my book on transitioning from law school to law practice.

 

3 comments

  1. Wow.

    I’ve often found myself having these sorts of anxieties when in social situations. I used to think it was because I was uncomfortable in the setting. But over time I;ve come to realize it is self-induced. I’ve tried various things to help push me forwards when interacting with people, but what you have laid out is a really solid plan. Thanks for this.

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