Making the Most of Manchester for Postgraduates: Getting Better at Connecting

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Yesterday I presented a 1 hour session on Making the Most of Manchester – 6 (and a bit) things postgraduates can do in their own way and their own time to (paraphrase the philosopher H D Thoreau), er,  squeeze the marrow out of living, studying and possibly working in Manchester. One of the 6 and a bit things I stressed the most, much to everyone’s chagrin judging by the nervous giggles, was connecting.  Networking.  Getting to know people.  Making friends.  As the introduction to this excellent video by The Atlantic on “Talking to Strangers” points out “connected communities are critical to the health of individuals and societies.”

Why don’t we like talking to strangers? (see below) Even if we like it, is it possible to get better at it? (yes) Can we learn to like it? (to some extent, it’s important to try) Does is mean you have to be one of those backslapping, gregarious types whose extrovert energy lights up an entire room? (definite no).

Yesterday we looked at some of the reasons people ‘hate’ talking to strangers

  • We are shy or introverted – or both. It’s important to distinguish between shyness and introversion.  Although they are not the same thing, they are also not mutually exclusive either as this insightful article by Susan Cain discusses.
  • Related to shyness, we may have anxiety either mild or acute related to meeting strangers.  The Counselling Service offers workshops and other support if you recognise some aspects of social anxiety in yourself and would like to make some changes.
  • Maybe we’ve had a bad experience with an unhelpful stranger, or we were feeling poorly or unprepared.  Emotion is a powerful teacher; a negative experience makes a strong impression and it’s not surprising that it might lead us to avoid situations where such things might happen again.
  • Perhaps we feel vulnerable because of our language skills.  As I related yesterday, I struggle to communicate verbally in languages where my reading and writing is perfectly fluent.  Intent on making a good impression and not embarrassing myself, I lose the thread of conversations because I’m trying to formulate a perfectly grammatical response to something someone said five minutes ago.  Some advice for becoming a more confident second (third, or fourth language speaker:  “What’s the worst that can happen if you screw up in front of someone? Nothing!” and Great insight for the humorous and the introverted.
  • If it is a formal opportunity to meet strangers, such as a conference, seminar, careers fair, or networking event, we can experience pressure to ‘perform’ to make a good impression.  This always reminds me of Elizabeth’s remark to D’ Arcy at the Netherfield ball in Pride and Prejudice:

“We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the éclat of a proverb.”

Other people report that pressure comes from a belief that connecting with others is all about securing a job.  Seeing networking in that light makes it awkward and unpalatable for many people.

So if it’s not about performing to impress or getting a job offer, what’s the point? Why bother? What are the benefits?

  • Information
  • Ideas
  • Raising your profile, building a reputation
  • Learning
  • Be mentored…or mentoring
  • Work/business contacts
  • Friendship
  • Romance

Yes. You read that last one correctly. And why not?  It’s a completely legitimate if often overlooked benefit of networking. [And, since yesterday, even some (slightly dodgy, for a couple of reasons) data to back it up.]

But what if people are rude and do reject you?

Believe that if people are rude and do reject you, the vast majority of the time, it’s them not you.  Maybe they are having a bad day, received bad news, are stressed, are themselves anxious about meeting strangers. You don’t have any control over how people respond to you, but you have absolute control over how you respond to them. Don’t take it personally, particularly if they are a stranger – how could you take it personally? They don’t even know who you are!

If you can stand the thought of it, and remain objective, try politely to find out why.  Sometimes, particularly under pressure and duress, or anxiety, people may not realise the impact of their behaviour. There are habitually rude people in the world, sad to say.  Who knows how they got into the habit, but you can’t force someone to change their behaviour.  The best response to those people is to be polite and move on.

In situations where it is ‘you’ (maybe you are having a bad day, have had bad news, are stressed, etc.), remember it’s not really you – it’s your behaviour, and you can change that.  Use it as an a opportunity to learn about yourself and grow.

How can you get better at connecting?

1.    In addition to the Talking to Strangers video, watch How to work a crowd by Alexis Bauer, a humorous approach to getting better at networking
2.    Try one of these ‘choose your own adventure’ approaches to learning networking skills
3.    Read and reflect on the resources in this article.  Make a personal plan for how to improve your approach to connecting with others.
4.    Seek advice or use others as a sounding board for your ideas.
5.    Create or take advantages of available opportunities to meet people.

If I could learn to get better at it, you can, too.

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