Many of us have negative feelings about networking. Studies have shown when we talk to people about networking before asking them to perform word completion tasks (for example S_ _ P or W_ _ H) they tend to come up with words like soap and wash. For many, networking is a dirty word. Networking can be an especially dreadful experience for introverts. Many envision awkward conversations, mixers, or conferences with people prematurely handing out business cards. Networking is a terrible experience for many. 

Networking is based on the question, what can you do for me? Popular culture further enforces the notion that networking is simply about meeting as many people as possible. Now imagine creating an event where a large portion of attendees have come to find out what others can do for them, to meet as many people as possible, and to hand out as many business cards as possible. It’s a recipe for multiple short and meaningless conversations that end with someone shaking your hand and handing you a business card. 

The research is clear: few of us enjoy networking. Yet, research also demonstrates that having a strong network is a large factor that contributes to success. Good networking isn’t about meeting as many people as possible. It’s about meeting the right people. For some, that may indeed mean a large network, for others a small network. Either way, the right network can quickly lead to new opportunities. 

Instead of thinking about networking as an activity, something you go out and do, think of networking as a strategy for curating your social circle. I see I’m guilty of using the network and social circle interchangeably. Let’s zoom in on the word social. Sociologists tell us human social systems are about building relationships. Although you might be building a network of people, you’re building a social circle—a circle of genuinely warm, human relationships. When you think about networking it’s best to think about how to intentionally grow your circle of relationships. Think about how to get the most people who fit your ideal client profile to become engaged members of your circle. 

High performing entrepreneurs and professionals differentiate themselves from lesser performers by intentionally curating (maintaining, refining and growing) their circle. First, they maintain the relationships they already have. Second, they don’t add just anybody to their circle: they’re discerning about who they invite in. When asking for introductions high performers are very clear about who their ideal client is. When they ask to be introduced to someone, they’re asking to meet someone who closely fits the profile of their ideal client. This form of screening is one indication that they’re actively curating their social circle. 

High performers continually test and redefine their ideal clients. They pay attention to the kinds of people they invite into their circle and work to consistently meet new people. They continuously assess who they want to continue relationships with and make adjustments as things evolve. High performers understand that things are constantly changing. 

There’s an impersonal aspect of networking that isn’t about relationships: creating social capital. Sociologist Robert Putnam describes social capital as the “connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.” Putnam measures social capital by analyzing the amount of trust and reciprocity that occurs within a social circle or network. For him, networking is about creating trust and reciprocity. We get reciprocity through netweaving. Netweaving is rooted in the question, what can I do for you? When you netweave, you build trust and reciprocity in your social circle.

When you’re intentional about building your social circle, you do things to maintain trust and reciprocity in your existing relationships. People you already know present the biggest opportunity for growing your circle. High performers actively work to ensure that those with whom they already have relationships continue to see them as credible, trustworthy, and reliable. When you maintain your existing network, it’s easiest for you to gain introductions from those already in your circle. In our Business Builder Academy program and with our online Coach on the Go™ performance platform, we teach how to create social capital and how to grow social circles. When building a social circle, it’s important that your goal be three-fold: 

1. Increase the size of your circle. 

2. Increase the quality of your circle. 

3. Maintain and refine your circle. 

If networking sometimes evokes feelings of doing something dirty, it shouldn’t. Networking is nothing more than working to meet the friends of your friends. It’s about forging relationships with those who are just one degree removed from your existing social circle. 

Here are four things to consider when you think about networking:

1. Research suggests people don’t mix at mixers. You’re better off attending mixers that are activity or learning focused. 

2. People tend to speak with people they already know or to those similar to themselves. Use tactics to meet new people, for example, make a point of speaking to at least two people who are not introduced to you by someone in your existing circle.  

3. When people you know introduce you to others in their network, you’re leveraging their social capital. Practice leveraging your existing relationships. 

4. Analyze your network for previously unseen and forgotten ties. Most of us have people in our network we’ve not connected within a long time. They can play a crucial role in growing our social circle.