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Networking: It ain’t easy

This past Saturday night I attended my 35-year high school reunion – Millbrook High School in Raleigh, NC. The organizers picked a wonderful venue, food was plentiful and we had a decent turnout. Considering, more than 25 years passed since I last attended a reunion this was going to be a true test of (an aging) memory and an opportunity to practice what I preach about networking.

Yes. That's my senior picture. BTW: Our class slogan was -- '75 don't take no jive.

Being an introvert, large crowds drain me (as evidenced by the two naps I took on Sunday), but I was determined to catch up with as many people as I could during the event. My darling husband assured me he’d be fine and encouraged me to go mingle. Being an extrovert, he was in his element. He’s never met a stranger so I sallied forth leaving him to make his way as I conquered my own apprehensions. Truth be told, I would have been fine hanging with him all night, but that defeated the purpose of going.

What I found is (like this is going to be a huge revelation) networking is difficult and takes effort, lots of effort – especially when starting with little common ground, other than a shared experience 35 years ago. When I go to local TweetUps, attendees have Twitter and a love of social media in common. When I went to the Career Management Alliance (CMA) conference earlier this year, participants shared a professional and a membership bond. When I manned volunteer booths for animal rescue organizations, it was easy to talk with complete strangers about animals. While each of these examples demonstrates networking opportunities, they come with an inherent commonality absent from a class reunion.

We are the Wildcats. The mighty, mighty Wildcats.

We have a wonderful alumni site for our class and many of us reconnected via Facebook in the past few years, but other than those few connections, we were all flying pretty much blind as to what we had in common any more. Armed with what I know about networking, I met my classmates with a firm handshake or a big hug and made a point of putting the focus on the person I was meeting.

It was interesting. Some people followed my lead and mirrored back the questions I was asking making for a nice exchange. Others launched into an autobiography, complete with pictures which was also fun. Others answered with a basic yes/ no responses making it like “pulling hen’s teeth” to keep the conversation going. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed every conversation and don’t share this to pick on any one approach. It was absolutely marvelous catching up – regardless the conversation style. But, I looked at things through a career professional’s eyes. I had the opportunity to experience unfamiliar networking waters first hand. After all, I “preach the gospel” of networking. I should dive into the deep end once in awhile too. And perhaps some of what I learned could help my clients and my blog readers.

You’d think in a room full of 50-somethings, with wonderful lives and stories to tell, there would be no trouble with small talk. And with all the information out there about meeting people and networking, at our age, we’d all know what to do. What I found was just the opposite. It’s uncomfortable in the incipient stage of the conversation – regardless age, background, accomplishments or in my case, networking knowledge. I was as nervous approaching people as I’m sure they were about approaching me. I kept the conversation rolling by asking about jobs, children, current location or was honest in sharing, “I really don’t remember you from high school anymore than you remember me, but isn’t this a great party?”

Once we’d broken the ice, things got easier. But those first tentative syllables were excruciating for the majority of us. Why do I share this story with you? To let you know it’s OK to be a bit apprehensive and uncomfortable when you’re out meeting a group of strangers. (I was, and I write about and coach clients in networking frequently.) And also to let you know, after the first few encounters, it does get easier and you will become braver. But, most importantly, I want to let you know, there are very few people out there who are gifted or even knowledgeable in the art of small talk. We’re all a bit intimidated by the prospect of approaching a stranger and striking up a conversation. You are not alone. Armed with a little networking knowledge you’ve already differentiated yourself from the rest crowd and can now help you put others at ease – a winning proposition for your next event.

I discovered a few other things on Saturday night too:

People you didn’t think would remember you, did.
People you thought (hoped?) would remember you, didn’t.
Things you did in high school you thought, at the time, were memorable, weren’t.
Things you did in high school and forgot were remembered.

Transitioning that information into a networking lesson: never underestimate the power of a simple gesture and don’t think you’re “all that” either. So get out there. Be interesting. Be interested. You never know what connection you’ll make, what memory will be stirred or what common ground you’ll uncover, just by extending your hand.

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10 Comments

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Dawn Bugni, Linda Locke. Linda Locke said: Love this! RT @DawnBugni "Networking: It ain't easy" my latest post, complete with a picture of a 17-year-old me. http://is.gd/gjayH […]

  2. kimba green says:

    Great story! Loved the picture of you! You really hit the nail on the head with this one. It is so hard to network. To make yourself get out there. I try very hard to not over think it before i go. I just jump in and hope for the best!

    BTW: My class was 79 sure is fine! And we were the WILDCATS! LOL!

  3. Dawn says:

    Thanks Kimba! Your approach — jumping in and hoping for the best — is pretty much what I did Saturday night. And, I’m sure as you’ve found, it worked. I had a wonderful time, caught up with some fascinating people and rekindled a few friendships. If we all help each other, an “unpleasant task” turns into a fun event.

    BTW: When I told darling hubby our class slogan, he said, “Dawn, no one knows what ‘jive’ is anymore.” LOL.

    As always, it’s a treat when you stop by! Thanks woman!!

  4. What a sweet post,Dawn. Thank you for sharing the fact that even professional networkers can sometimes feel vulnerable themselves when it comes to shaking hands with a stranger,even one from your own past who is no longer familiar. Because of my father’s business, we moved around a lot growing up,and as much as I hated it back then, that experience has made it easier for me than a lot of people I know to walk into a room full of strangers only to leave a room full of friends when I go. Your post is a great reminder of just how difficult that can be for some people,and important it can be to develop that ability, even if it’s a little uncomfortable at first. Great post,and great memories. Thanks Dawn.
    Cheers
    Rob

    • Dawn says:

      Sailor Rob!

      What a splendiferous surprise you weighed anchor here! Woot.

      You and my DH, Gary, share a similar background. One that spawned the enviable “never met a stranger approach” to events. I’m learning, from him and by “just doing it.” The biggest benefit I see from gaining comfort in networking is that I can help someone else gain comfort too. And that speaks to the helper in my soul. It was difficult, but in the end, it was great fun. Sometimes, stepping outside comfort zones lends great rewards. This was one of those times.

      Thanks for stopping by and taking a moment to share your always welcomed perspective. Please. Drop by again. 🙂

  5. Dawn Lennon says:

    I could just copy and paste the first part of your post and put it in my own…that’s how much a mirror it is of my own high school reunion experiences. I actually dread going, then I go, try to make the best of it, and then wonder why I went. Ultimately, I’m happy that I maintained the contact, but the experience of all the “catching up” is exhausting!

    You make such a great point about networking where there is a common focus v. where it’s a free for all! For some dumb reason at my reunions, they don’t give out name tags! So I fumble around trying to figure out who people are. You can’t even ask for a business card as a tactic!

    Best of all are your final discoveries! Truth is, I don’t remember much of anything from HS because I can’t figure I why I need to. Instead of standing around updating each other about life events, I’d much rather talk about perspectives that our lives have brought…the stuff that helps us get through the next day.

    BTW, I know what “jive” is…and you’ve still got it! ~Dawn

    • Dawn says:

      Dawn –

      They don’t give out name tags? Oh my. Kudos (yet again) to our organizers. They had name tags made up with our senior pictures on them. It was great. If we didn’t recognize today’s face, we could pull out our bifocals (LOL) and peer at our senior faces. That too was an wonderful ice breaker.

      And sooooo true about not remembering much about HS. I share that trait with you. What I found truly interesting was how people defined their lives. Some lived vicariously through their successful children. Some clung to one HS event that continues to shape their lives today. Some embraced the here and now. Nothing wrong with any of those approaches, but it was interesting to see the diversity.

      As time grew closer, I too wondered why I was going at all. I’m so glad I overcame that craziness and went. I had a ball. I’ll go again. And next time, it’ll be a little easier.

      Always love it when you drop in with a bit of wisdom. Thank you.

      And honey … we’ve both still got it! (Comes with the name, I’m sure. :))

      • Dawn Lennon says:

        When you’ve got “it,” it’s hard to be humble! I surely hope I’ve got as much of “it” as you do…when I feel like I’m running short, I’ll read another of your posts and get rejuvenated! You’re terrific…wish you (and Jacqui) lived closer!

        BTW, you’re observations about the way folks approach their lives is on the money! ~Dawn

  6. Great lessons in this, Dawn, and I am glad you had a good time!

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