Relationship advice for Asians (everyone else benefits too)

This past weekend I was invited to give a workshop at the Northwest Vietnamese Student Association Summit. The Summit is a regional gathering of young, emerging leaders from the Vietnamese community. They come from all over the northwest, from California and Portland up to Canada. My talk was called “Relationship Building for Dummies: Why you’re wasting your time networking.” It focused on the differences between relationship building and networking, and how to strengthen authentic, positive professional relationships in your own life. Here’s a summary of my talk.

Why Networking is stupid

Have you ever heard of an elevator pitch? The idea is that you need to quickly and clearly introduce yourself in the time it takes to ride an elevator from one floor to another: “You need me; let me tell you why.” Elevator pitches embody just about everything I dislike about networking.

The problem is that networking is “me” based. “There are five reasons why I’m awesome. One, decisive. Two, intelligent. Three, I’m good communicator. Four…” *ding ding ding* The elevator doors slowly open. “Ah dang it, wait. Don’t leave. I haven’t told you about reasons four and five! Can I get your number?”

Networking focuses on short-sighted, immediate goals and very often results in superficial, fleeting relationships. Think about all of those speed-dating events or job fairs you went to—how often did you actually follow up with the people you connect with? People who rely on networking focus too much time and energy getting their names out there, rather than genuine relationships with the people around them.

Focus on building, deep, authentic relationships

Relationship building, as opposed to networking, focuses on two-way, reciprocal connections. It carefully builds a partnership based on give and take…kind of like marriage. In fact, you should just pretend like you are married to the other person–cook them dinner, clean their floors, watch their children, etc…

Developing authentic relationships between people is critical to success. The word authentic is extremely important because people rarely communicate authentically. Relationship building isn’t about being fake, dishonest, or self-serving. Instead, it focuses on how you could support others, not what they can do for you. In order to have a friend, you need to be a friend.

How to connect with new people

Get an introduction: It’s really awkward to go up to someone you don’t know—so avoid it if you can. “Hello. You don’t know me, but my name is James. Sorry, my hand is kind of wet. I was just in the bathroom but don’t worry, I washed them.” Be honest, you’ve all probably been in either side of that scenario—it’s about as comfortable as an Asian parent saying “I love you.”

Use introductions instead. Introductions are a powerful way to connect to new people since it stems from a foundation of trust. If you ever find yourself where you don’t know many people, ask a friend or co-worker introduce you to people they know and go from there.

What happens if I don’t know anyone? Very rarely will you find yourself in a situation where you don’t know anyone (maybe if you were in North Korea). In general, chances are good that you know at least one person—whether it’s a school event, a job, or a community gathering. Use that!

Find common ground: Have you ever met someone new and you simply didn’t know what to talk about? Think about how awkward and uncomfortable that was. “Hi, I’m James. Do you like the Seahawks? You don’t like the Seahawks!? WTF is wrong with you? Well what do you like? Baseball? I hate baseball.” This is a common networking trap. Genuine dialogue occurs when you both discuss shared interests. Otherwise, one of you will be bored out of your mind.

Communicate in a way that is culturally appropriate: Be mindful of your audience. Know that people come from diverse backgrounds; you need to communicate in a way that is respectful of that. “But where are you really from?” is what you should not say to an Asian person. Trying to piecemeal together a sentence from using someone’s native language is also rude (unless you actually know their language). Making comments about a woman’s intelligence or appearance is also an invitation for trouble. “I was just joking! Don’t take it so seriously.” Relationship building is about mutual respect, so spend less time trying to be funny and more time being real (unless your real self is a jerk, then just stop and walk away).

How to gracefully end a conversation

Ending a conversation, especially with someone you don’t know that well, can be extremely difficult. It’s kind of like saying goodbye to someone, and you both start walking off in the same direction. Awkward! The best way that I have found to gracefully end a conversation is to “pass it on.”

  • Step 1: Introduce your new friend to someone else you know. ““Rachel, I’d like to introduce you to my friend Michael?”
  • Step 2: Establish common ground for the new couple; something simple goes a long way. “You two actually both studied psychology in undergraduate. What are the odds? Two Asians and neither was pre-med.”
  • Step 3: Carefully remove yourself from the conversation. “Why don’t you two talk more about the brain and I’m going to grab us another drink” or “Would you two excuse me? I need to use the restroom. Keep talking though!”

In this example, notice we use the power of introductions to our advantage; in this case, to gracefully and politely end a conversation. Secondly, by pre-establishing common ground for your two friends, you’re giving them something to talk about. This makes it easier for you to step back.

What happens if they hate each other? Use your best judgment. Connect people based on their common ground. If you have reason to believe two people are going to hate each other, don’t introduce them. Pretend like you’re setting up a friend on a blind date—the same rules apply.

Why you must always follow up with people

The biggest mistake most people make is trading long-term success for convenience and immediacy. “This person isn’t worth my time anymore” or “He’s not interesting enough to stay in touch with” or “She’s weird, I don’t want to follow up with her.”

Following up with people is extremely important! It’s how you keep relationships alive and healthy. The truth is we don’t know where people will end up in one year, five or ten, so we shouldn’t get in the habit of trying to pick winners and losers in our relationships. Everyone should be worthy of our time, attention and support. This is why follow up is critical to strong relationships.

What do to with business cards: In the age of smartphones, business cards still rule the professional world—kind of like how email is still top dog despite Facebook and Snapchat. Most organizations and businesses give their employees thousands of business cards, which most of us don’t know what to do with. So we shower people with cards wherever we go. “You get a business card. You get one too!” Give ‘em to your friends. Trade ‘em with your parents.

My general rule of thumb whenever you get a business card (or any type of contact information) is to follow up within 24 hours. Why 24 hours? Because it’s timely and better than 3 days or 1 week. And for goodness sake, just keep it simple. There’s no need to follow up with a lengthy essay–keep it Twitter length. “Hi Michelle. It was nice meeting you yesterday. I really enjoyed our conversation together. I hope we can stay in touch.” Short and simple.

One last note about business cards: It helps to make notes on the back of cards to help you remember who you talked to. That way, when you follow up with them it doesn’t sound lame and generic.

The big take away

I think we often get networking and relationship building mixed up because they both inherently deal with our connections to other people. But networking has become a game where we calculate the most gain with the least amount of effort. Don’t fall into that trap. Focus on building authentic relationships with the people around you.

Now, I’ve said all I have to say about this. So who wants one of my business cards? Seriously, I need to get rid of them. I have over 600 left! So…the first 600 people to like this post or comment will get a business card, autographed by me!

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