A networking event with lots of people in attendance

Does Networking Come Naturally to You?

A few years ago, I attended an old school friend’s wedding. David and I are part of a group of eight friends that have stayed in close contact. Today, with partners (and ever-increasing numbers of children), we’ve all remained close. 

David’s wedding to Lottie was on one of those amazing days when the British weather manages to do what it is supposed to do in summer. The venue was a stately home near Crewe, where every room, with the antique furniture, paintings and fittings looked wonderful. 

The regular wedding traditions were all there: after the wedding ceremony itself, all the guests, were mingling and chatting on the lawn in front of the house, getting stuck into the Pimms. Dinner was then served, followed by speeches, cutting the cake, the first dance, and of course lots more booze.

During the day, I noticed something. Whenever people were chatting, I only talked to my group of friends. For the wedding ceremony, I sat myself next to people who I knew already. 

When the guests went to sit down for dinner, the seating plan dictated that I would be next to people who I knew well. OK, not my choice there, but it still suited me fine to not be next to strangers, and not to have to make uncomfortable small talk. As the evening progressed, the dance floor became busier and busier. I, with my two left feet, preferred to sit and chat with my friends.

Not once did I make the effort to go and speak to someone new, someone I didn’t know, someone different. It’s not exactly difficult to start up a conversation at a wedding. Everyone is (generally) happy to be there. There is a shared connection with literally every guest (i.e. we all knew David & Lottie). So I had the opportunity to meet new people, but I just didn’t want to.

Why was this? I train people how to network! I speak and have written books about networking. I spend my entire working life talking to people. What was the difference here? Surely I should have no problem talking to people and socialising at a relaxed occasion like a wedding.

But the fact remains that I did have a problem with chatting to people at David & Lottie’s wedding. I had no inclination whatsoever to put myself out of my comfort zone.

I must put this in further context, by talking about my Mum. Put simply, I don’t know anyone who networks better than her. I remember going to a funeral with her once, which was when it struck me just how good at engaging with other people she is. 

The funeral was my great aunt’s, who died when she was well into her 90s. Most of her generation had now either passed away, or if they were still alive, were unable to travel to the funeral. So there were just a handful of people at the crematorium, and afterwards at the wake.

Now I know that this was a funeral, and not a riotous party. But with so few people, there was virtually no conversation. But then my Mum got going. She got everyone chatting and enjoying themselves, as much as anyone is going to at a funeral. She talked to everyone. She showed a genuine interest in them. She introduced people to one another. She made the whole occasion… bearable.

Where was I in all this? Yes, you guessed it, I was cowering in the corner, trying to avoid talking to too many people. Or, when I got roped into a conversation by my Mum, trying to appear to be vaguely interested. 

So what is the relevance of these two non-work related events? Why am I discussing them in a post about networking? Well, networking is talking to people. Networking is about building relationships. The more you talk to people, the better the relationships you’ll be able to build. 

In a business context, we call it networking (and that word can be off-putting to lots of people). In social circumstances, we call it talking to people. In fact, they’re the same thing.

Both David and Lottie’s wedding and my great aunt’s funeral (and don’t worry, we’re not going to discuss another three weddings…) got me thinking. I don’t really enjoy meeting new people very much!

It is true: I can categorically state, that I, a business relationships expert that makes his living from networking, do not like networking! There, I’ve said it. 

But why? Why is it that I am perfectly comfortable networking when I ‘have to’, but when I don’t, it is the last thing I want to do?

You see, I’m not bad at networking. I know that in my professional life I’m very good at it. I can very easily enter a room of strangers, introduce myself, and get to know something about them. I know I can leave with follow up opportunities.

It’s just that for me, networking is not something that is naturally in my comfort zone. I’m far happier sitting back, taking everything in, and spending my time with people who I care about. But I can manage networking if I want to: if I can persuade myself to take a step out of my comfort zone, I know I can network just as effectively as anyone else. 

In essence, I’m an Unnatural Networker.

What about you? Natural or Unnatural?