After reading my thoughts on networking last week, my friend Rachel Flehinger told me that a lot of the concepts that I covered are ones that come up in her classes. Rachel, a longtime improv veteran, teaches classes that incorporate improv into situations that entrepreneurs, small business people, and corporate folks run into day to day. She uses an improv approach to help people understand how to navigate what can otherwise feel like awkward situations.
I asked her pointed questions about how to deal with those times when networking feels like soul crushing nonsense, and she also explained how an improv-focused philosophy can serve us well in all aspects of our day to day.
WARNING: There is a swear or two in here, so if you are sensitive about that sort of thing… Ignore this warning and get bent out of shape in the comments.
I find myself discouraged by small talk and the performative nature of conversation in “networking” situations. Some people in these types of situations can be disingenuous. What am I doing wrong?
Well, one thing I suggest is to take the focus off the content. You want to focus more on the connection. You may be making small talk but are you doing it on a profound level where you are actually paying attention to the person. Are you really listening to each other? Pay attention to those differences in connection. The connection is important, not always the content.
What should I do when I find myself in a conversation with someone who is very obviously uninterested, or exclusively there to maybe get something and so they are not actually engaged? Do I walk away from that?
Well, do you want to walk away or do you want to engage more?
Ideally, I’d like to engage further if possible so let’s start there.
To engage more, I would ask more questions. If somebody asks you a question and they’re not listening, go back to the connection. If they’re not listening to you for whatever reason, go back to them. Ask them about themselves. Nobody loves anything more than talking about themselves. If you can get somebody talking about themselves, especially if you’re a salesperson, you really get to know a person and that’s what sells whatever you’re selling. It’s the connection, not the product, that tends to sell.
So if we try that and it doesn’t work, then what?
You mean how do we bury the dead conversation and then walk away?
It depends on where you are. Sometimes it is a simple matter of saying “Hey, it was really great talking to you and if you ever need someone who…” and you have your ten second tag about what you offer or do “… then I’d be happy to hear from you.” You never give someone a card; you ask them for their card.
I think a big rule of card is ask for someone’s card always, and reiterate what they do so they feel heard. Most of the time they’ll ask for a card in return, but read the situation. Don’t aways hand yours back like, “And here’s mine too.” If they’re really not interested, don’t force yourself on them.
Earlier you told me that you run into a lot of people who don’t know how to walk into a room. Can you explain what you mean by that?
For people who have trouble with this, the first question I ask is “When are you in a room?” What would your guess be? When do you perceive that you have entered the room?
That’s such a great question! I don’t know. I really don’t.
Some people will say it’s when they’re in with the people, and others will say it’s when I walk through the door. Some will say it’s when someone notices me. There are a lot of different answers, but the right answer is it’s the minute you walk through the threshold. That’s when your energy is in the room. A lot of people look at the door when people come through it. If you are questioning yourself and you are uncomfortable and you don’t feel good about yourself, you need to do all of that before you enter a room.
You know, I didn’t know that’s what I was doing, but looking back on recent memory, and on every time I’ve entered a room, I realize that I sort of black out for 30 seconds and I guess in that time I’m just emotionally getting my shit together.
And you’re scoping and figuring out who you need to talk with and all of that. When you’re doing all of that assessing, you need to let go of all your insecurities. You need to do all of that from a centered place, with a vision in mind of who you are and what you’re there to do.
So let’s say I realize, okay, I need to work through some of my demons and get better at this stuff, and it sounds like Rachel’s got some answers, what sort of process am I facing?
It’s a really great question and the process is customized for each person. I work with individuals and I also hold group classes, so it depends.
I’ll give you an example:
Right now I am working with a photographer and she is finding that she is not closing business with people; people are changing their minds about what they want from her. In talking with her, I have realized that she doesn’t live in her photographer person. She doesn’t sit in it comfortably and she tends to apologize for it. So this week her homework is to carry her camera everywhere she goes, take pictures, and post her photos to Facebook with her privacy set to public. If you love photography, let’s get back to it. Because I can’t teach somebody to network who feels sort of wishy-washy about what they’re doing. Like, “I’m kind of a photographer…” Right? I can’t do that. So individual programs are totally individually designed.
Another example of an exercise I do: I was working with someone who was afraid to assert themselves. They felt like they were bothering people all the time. So I told them, “You need to go into the grocery store and act like you’re in a hurry. Find someone who works there and tell them, ‘I need milk.’ Don’t ask, don’t apologize, don’t say excuse me. Just walk up and say, “I need milk.” They did it a few times and realized that people didn’t hate them. Maybe they thought this person had a milk emergency, but they didn’t hate them. And we did exercises like that. I try to make the exercises real world, and to have it move at their pace.
What do you wish people, particularly entrepreneurs, small business folks, corporate employees, and folks wearing those hats, better understood about your skill set?
My teaching motto is “Fuck it.” I’ve tried to come up with better and more PC ways to talk about it but…
There IS no other way!
There is none. What improv specifically teaches is freedom to fail. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you will fail, but it means you will be okay if you do which gives you the freedom to try.