A few weeks ago I attended a conference with colleagues from around the globe. One of the purposes of the event was networking. You know, connecting with others? What does connecting really mean anyway? What I know, is it requires more than a simple introduction. What I learned, was the best connections don’t come from constant networking exercises such as ‘introduce yourself to 5 new people and then sit at a new table’. Instead, connections came during lunch, on the bus to dinner, during breaks in the hallway or at the hotel bar. The best laid plans for networking, may not always work. Can people really connect without intervention?
There is no shortage of methods to connect. Getting introduced to new people through people you know, talking to the person who is wandering around aimlessly (they don’t know anyone either), or simply chatting with the person in front of you at the buffet line for a few minutes, are all ways to connect. Making connections at an event so large is challenging, especially when you consider the number of native languages spoken. In actuality, the language difference was one of the more fun ways to connect. Imagine my surprise when a man from Italy had not heard of Arizona, yet knew of the Grand Canyon. Finally there was recognition, “Oh, ARRRITZZOOONAA!”, he exclaimed. This triggered a conversation about pronunciation and accents. To be completely honest, I preferred the Italian pronunciation, because it made the state name actually worthy of the Grand Canyon.
On the bus back to the hotel from dinner one evening, I met two Brazilian’s. I asked how to say, “Thank You”, in Portuguese. I mean, when was I going to get another chance to ask that? I wonder if they remembered me for that? If not, I learned something new. When I met the Brazilian’s, I would have guessed they were from Europe or America, as their names (and looks) did not provide any indication of country of origin. Strange how looks do not indicate where people are from any more. The German from Brazil? The Indian from England? And me…the American from ‘ARRITZZOOONAA’? We are all just people and connecting does not seem to be dependent on culture.
As the week wore on, I became annoyed that I could not spend enough time with people to remember their name, never mind understand their role in the organization or how we could help each other. It felt like 2 minute speed dating and I wasn’t getting any phone numbers. For me the event was utterly overwhelming and exhausting. After 3 days I was losing my voice from talking so much, but demoralized. Why did I have only 1 business card in 3 days? What was I doing wrong?
By the end of day 3, connecting became crystal clear to me. When you really connect with people, something happens inside you. It is like electricity. Maybe what was inside me was a vodka shot warming my belly, but I believe it was more than that. When you walk into a room, you see people. All kinds of people. Who are you drawn to stand next to? Who do you want to have a conversation with? Who smiles or laughs the most? I gravitate to the people who are laughing and joking. Even if they are laughing at my shirt because it is buttoned incorrectly or because a coworker drank too much and looks like a shawl hanging over my shoulders. Like everyone, I find myself walking up to people who look familiar to me (I think I sat with that guy at breakfast?), or that I know (His name looks familiar, didn’t we exchanged e-mails a few weeks ago?). Once you meet a few people, things really take off. A few connections grow into more, and more, and more. Is there anything really wrong with this kind of organic networking? I hope not, because it was the most fun!
If you put random people together in a room, won’t they eventually form groups of people who are similar in some way? Sure, it is great to have different opinions, backgrounds and ideas, but to truly connect with people, you need something in common (role, language, age, experience, sports?). The Dalai Lama believed that any one person can connect with any other person. So it isn’t so much the structure of the meeting, but the fact that you are together and finding other people similar in some way. I decided that the energy and resulting electricity were evidence of successful connecting. In the end, I made a lot of new connections, strengthened existing ones and left the event with a lot more electricity than what I arrived with. What electrical connections are you making today?