What comes to your mind when you think of networking?

Some might think of networking in terms of “what can I get out of this relationship?” Others might reasonably conclude it should be a give-and-take exchange. Still others might view a network as a social group to share ideas.

Merriam-Webster defines a network as: “a usually informally interconnected group or association of persons (such as friends or professional colleagues).”

Networking has the ability to help us when we need it. For example, if we suddenly find ourselves without a job, people in our network can potentially assist us by sharing news of job openings or even recommending us to people in their network.

Sadly, people who find themselves in need without a solid network of relationships might then begin networking in desperation. Their method then becomes one-sided and narrowly focused on “my needs without regard for others.” No one wants to help unknown entities because they are likely to disappear when they get what they desire.

Therefore, your motive may determine how much you benefit from networking.

Motive for networking

If your motive is to help others, connect with like-minded individuals, share insights, offer support, learn, or simply give of your time, then you will be viewed as reasonable and helpful.

People can tell when there is give and take versus take and run. If we think about, “How can I help this person?” as opposed to “How can this person help me?” we become better, friendlier people. And because we’re more apt to help others who have been helpful to us, we are likely to get help when we need it.

If we view networking only as, “What can I get out of this?” our selfish thinking will backfire. People recognize when they’re being used and otherwise ignored.

Some might conclude that being a giver or seeking to help someone else is not a good use of their time. Being kind and thoughtful is a weakness in their view.

But aren’t we more drawn to people who are kind, thoughtful and helpful? And doesn’t it motivate us to react in kind?

Networking is only difficult when our thinking is flawed. Consider these tips when networking.

Build allies

It’s easier to move through life (both professionally and personally) when we have support on our side. Having like-minded individuals who can answer questions or give us ideas helps us make better decisions. Be a good colleague and support others, and you will have people on your side when you need help.

Be useful to others

Granted, we are usually focused on our own work and assignments and are constantly generating goals and implementing strategies. Even so, we have conversations with people who express concerns or discuss their challenges or make simple comments that make us think: “I know someone who can help with that.” We offer advice (sometimes without being asked) about which doctor to see, what article to read, and where to shop for a specific product, often without even realizing we are being helpful. It’s natural to want to share solutions. Take a few moments to think about anyone who has recently forced your “creative helping wheels” to turn, then reach out and offer to help.

We all know people (unless we live in a dark lonely bubble). We have conversations with business acquaintances, people within our organizations or boards, neighbors and friends, and all of them eventually discuss a challenge or need they have. And we usually know someone who can solve that problem. Share that knowledge.

Take your time

Timing isn’t everything. Sometimes the “right time” might be years down the road. As you build your allies through working relationships, volunteer activities, and social events, you build relationships that could last for decades. You might not immediately see results from being helpful and kind or nurturing relationships. But people will keep watching and will remember you because you’re still there with them, and they’ve learned to trust you.

Freely share what you know

To be clear, this doesn’t mean you have to give away your product or time to everyone who asks, especially those who have learned the art of taking instead of giving. But within your line of work and your knowledge pool, you still want to be useful to your network and share what you can. Avoid putting a price on everything you know.

For example, during one workshop on referrals, someone asked: “What are some tips for writing a thank-you card?” The moderator answered, essentially, that she charges for that knowledge and offered information for accessing her website. Coincidentally, on my website, I have posted an article with detailed tips for writing thank-you letters and a downloadable guide to help with the process. All for free.

Be helpful and generous within reason. Share articles and downloads whenever you can. Suggest a tour of your company. Set aside time for a meeting when appropriate. Think like a mentor and offer tips and advice to help your acquaintances grow in their roles.

Be open about your goals

As you build relationships, networking is still about helping others. And you can’t help people if you don’t know what they need. It’s okay to ask, “How can I help you?” or “What kind of work do you do?” When someone asks what you do, tell them in brief, specific phrases. I usually tell people: “I am an internal communications consultant specializing in communications audits to strengthen employee loyalty and build better engagement. I create a tailored strategy to overcome the issues.”

When someone asks how to help you, again, be specific. Saying, “Tell everybody you know I’m a writer,” isn’t helpful. You want to answer in a way that will prompt your network to remember you when they run into someone who has challenges you can solve. People in my network think about me when they hear someone say, “Our communications do not seem to be getting through, our retention rate is low, our managers and employees have trouble communicating, our operations and production have had problems because of lack of communication.” My contacts know I’m suited for these areas.

It’s also good to discuss goals, especially when seeking leadership roles or other opportunities. Your allies in your network might offer advice you had not considered. Or you might be able to connect your allies with a contact to answer some questions.

The takeaway

When networking, always remember to be kind and helpful. Think about how you can assist the other person, not about how that person can assist you. Build your allies and be a supporter or mentor for them. Be useful. Be patient. Freely share your knowledge. And finally, be open and candid about your goals.