Why The New Networking Is About Creating Connection—And Four Ways To Do It

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Relationships play a big role in our happiness and success in the workplace, and even impact how long we live. It may not be surprising that rates of loneliness increased for Americans during the pandemic. At the same time, social media use increased. We may be more connected virtually than we’ve ever been before, yet we are experiencing what some experts call an epidemic of loneliness. Loneliness impacts people at work, resulting in less productivity, greater job dissatisfaction and poorer health. One factor playing into this may be that, while networking is still valued, people are not finding as many ways to authentically connect.

“What I believe has been lost over the years with the ease of technology is this loss of intentionality, the loss of taking the time to really get to know people in a way that continues over the long haul,” says Susan McPherson, CEO of McPherson Strategies and author of The Lost Art of Connecting: The Gather, Ask, Do Method for Building Meaningful Business Relationships. “One of the key differentiators between networking and connecting is leading with how you can be helpful to others.”

In a nutshell, networking can feel more transactional, while creating connection is more of a two-way street where you lead with curiosity, ask questions, and use your strengths to help others. This is how genuine relationships are built over time. I spoke to McPherson about strategies for deepening our connections in the new year, especially in a virtual or hybrid environment. Here is her advice.

Show Up For Others

It’s not about saying yes to every meeting, but connecting—as opposed to networking—is about being there for people, truly listening to what their goals or dreams are, and then finding small ways to help them get there, such as by sharing your knowledge or making an introduction. Reciprocity is important, but it’s also about staying in touch without needing anything in return.

McPherson founded her company at 48 years old. “Over the last 10 years, 90% of our business has been inbound,” says McPherson. “What that told me is those meetings I took in my twenties, those people I made introductions to in my thirties, and in my forties when I had the privilege and the means to be able to write a check to support those people, they have come back to me. They might not be direct clients, but they have referred business. I look back now and I thank my lucky stars that I said yes to those meetings.”

Ditch The Small Talk—Including The Weather

Many people may be feeling more socially awkward after a few years of the pandemic because lockdowns led to less opportunities to engage with others, as well as an increase in anxiety for some. The heart of connecting is about finding out what others are interested in and what motivates them, as well as finding commonalities. Most people are happy to talk about themselves, and opening up yourself first makes others more likely to open up too.

McPherson says what is most important is to not talk about the weather. “Nine times out of 10 when people are waiting for a host to start a meeting, people talk about the weather. It’s safe; it’s easy. You’re not sharing anything that is descriptive of who you are. But you get nowhere. You learn nothing. It’s not like if you follow up with somebody tomorrow you can say, ‘It was great talking about the weather in Cleveland yesterday.’”

Rather, if you ask people about, say, a cause they’re passionate about or a problem they’d like to solve, you can take that information when you follow up, and say, “I understand you are really passionate about X. Well I happen to be involved with X, and I’d love to see how you could get involved.”

McPherson suggests a question to ask at a professional event might be, “If you could be anywhere but this event, where would you be and why?’ “It gets people thinking to help distract them from anxiety, because typically when we’re at events and certainly after two years of isolation, we’re out of practice,” she says. “I’m very much of an extrovert, and even I am finding myself uncomfortable.”

Use Technology In New Ways To Create Connection

Hybrid workplaces are here to stay. Rather than trying to return to the old way of interacting, it’s important to reimagine how we can use technology to connect in new ways going forward to reverse the growing trend of disconnection.

“I like to think about the ways Zoom and Microsoft Teams and such can actually be more serendipitous,” says McPherson. “We tend to think we’re losing those water cooler moments and that serendipity of being able to run into someone in the hallway, but we couldn’t be at an in-person meeting and have a side chat with the person next to us. The beautiful thing is we now have the chat. I’m not suggesting being disrespectful to your colleagues in the meeting or the host, but you can take advantage of the chat to have small side conversations and book a phone call with someone.”

McPherson says video calls can also make it easier to know everyone who is in the meeting because—unlike with in-person meetings—their names are displayed. This enables us to look them up and more easily reach out to them later to connect. While it’s not the same as being in person, these are some ways to use the tools on hand for the benefit of connection building.

Be Intentional About Connecting

McPherson suggests thinking about what your goals are for the next year, and then thinking very intentionally about who you want to meet or reconnect with. Think not only about how those people may help you get closer to your goals, but also about ways you might be helpful to them as well. “Truly listen, take what you heard and follow up,” says McPherson. “When you reciprocate and are responsive, you become a trustworthy soul—which is, quite frankly, something we all want to be.”



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