John Turner is a freelance business philosopher. Through his company Metathink, he works with a diverse range of organisations to help them develop coherent business philosophy using workshops and training. One of the areas John specialises in is networking, and how to extract the most value from networking environments using frameworks based around human nature.

What are the main problems that people have with networking environments?

For most people it’s a question of confidence. There is a very clear chance of failure when everyone is chasing the same goal – business investment and new opportunities. And that comes due to the rigid structure of networking environments. Everyone knows the rules. Everyone knows what the goal is. There’s a lot at stake and it’s hard to be naturally confident in such a rigidly defined, high-stakes environment.

People often feel confident in general social situations yet networking seems to turn grown people into wrecks. Why is this?

Actually, I think it’s arguable that people feel totally comfortable in social situations. There’s a certain amount of research on this topic. One of the most famous, called ‘And Death came third,’ came from a New York Times study that asked people what their biggest fear was. The most feared situation was public speaking, followed by walking into a room full of people you don’t know. Death was third.

This is a remarkable insight into how people feel towards social situations, and there are a number of evolutionary theories as to why these fears emerge.

In that regard, networking is not so different from any social situation, except that there’s an additional reason why you’re there – your presence must result in an investment/new business opportunity or your strategy has failed.

If the fear of social situations is universal, why do there appear to be confident and unconfident people? Do they differ on their degree of being able to cope?

Yes, and you can learn different strategies for dealing with social situations. Confidence is a totally learnable trait. It’s a case of reflecting on your own experience. That anxiety we feel when we walk into a room full of strangers, the crushing weight around the middle, is not so different from a feeling of excitement and playfulness. Playfulness is the key to being comfortable.

The good thing about networking is that everyone knows the rules, so you won’t be unsure about that. You know that you can walk up to someone and introduce yourself.

That anxiety we feel when we walk into a room full of strangers, the crushing weight around the middle, is not so different from a feeling of excitement and playfulness.

But if participants understand the rules, why do they still find networking difficult?

It comes back to confidence. There is a pattern of expectation when it comes to networking that it is a negative and difficult environment. This pattern of expectation must be broken to enable the networking process to continue and succeed. This is a great way to build confidence. Get a bunch of people in a room and do something to break this pattern – something that will loosen everyone up. It’s a warm up, but that has negative connotations. I like to call it a ‘circuit breaker.’ It’s just something that will recalibrate/reset peoples’ expectations to something else that is actually quite fun. And when things become fun, all kinds of things are possible.

Has the networking field changed in the last 30 years?

It’s evolved beyond recognition. While networking used to be a testosterone-fuelled clustering of men looking for the next deal, the networking landscape has evolved into something much more subtle and, in a way, more human. It’s become more accessible, which is a good thing, and generally people are more aware of how to get the results they desire.

Has our understanding of psychology led to that shift, as people become more aware of how they socialise?

Yes, in that when people become aware of why something is happening, they can then perceive the possibility of doing it differently. I don’t think it’s a case of them getting more psychologically attuned, just getting sick of doing it the old way when it clearly was not working. You got no good feeling [from the old way of networking].

There are also other reasons the networking environment has evolved. One of the most important is the rise in entrepreneurship. In effect there are two streams of networking; the older, more ‘professional’ approach and the modern, inspiring entrepreneurial approach, which gains traction as a greater diversity of people choose to become entrepreneurs.

The old networking approach is very ‘goal-orientated,’ which tends to be different from social interactions in everyday life. How do new models of networking approach this?

The old approach to networking was definitely goal-orientated. However, even in new approaches, there’s still the overarching knowledge that people are there for business and not for a social jolly.
What’s different is the ‘process’ of networking. This is key as only in recent years has networking been seen more of a process, something that can take a while before the end goal is achieved. This process is based on an old axiom – ‘we only do business with people we know, like and trust.’

This axiom is unavoidable, and thus people are beginning to understand the networking process can’t be focused on the end goal of business investment – this doesn’t yield the best results, and the process can be uncomfortable. Instead, it has to focus on naturally developing rapport and actually having fun. The business aspect can then emerge organically.

What about speed networking? Surely it’s impossible to build an efficient bonding process into such an environment?

Yes, that’s true. It goes against the ‘know, like and trust’ axiom so it’s often inappropriate for business networking. However, it does have merit in some situations, such as for professional contractors like accountants and lawyers, who have a large field of competitors and not much differentiation. In these cases, getting your business card in front of as many people as possible is important.

You seem to focus a lot on adding an element of fun and playfulness into networking environments. Is playfulness important for social bonding?

Very. That’s why children do it. Kids are very good at playfulness then somewhere down the line we forget how to do it, which is strange, because it’s not only fun but very handy in a range of environments, including business networking.

It’s useful because it helps you achieve cognitive dissonance i.e. to take a step back and examine your own experience, and to separate the experience from the self. Because really, we are different people in different situations. The person you are on the tube, when you’ve wrapped yourself in that cocoon, not letting anything in, is a different person to who you are when you step through the door of the office in the morning and that’s different to who you are when you step through the door to home.

Existing in these different ‘states’ is a totally normal part of being human. And that creates exciting possibilities that we can be different people in different situations. This is important because you can change the person you are, so that when you walk into a room full of people instead of being the guy who’s anxious, you’re the guy who’s enjoying the occasion and having fun.

This can require a lot of practice, because it's completely different from what most business people are used to.

Could you outline precisely what techniques you advocate for business networking to increase confidence?

The standard networking tips are relevant because so many people know about them and stick to them. So, have a clear message, why you’re there, a 30 second elevator pitch, to meet their expectation.

The most useful thing you can take in is an element of playfulness, the idea that ‘yes, it’s a room full of people, but I don’t mind, I don’t know anyone.’ You should chat as though you’ll never see them again, as though it’s not possible for you to destroy your organisation’s reputation!

And you need to realise that it IS possible to have fun in networking environments, it’s just that people get sapped into the same old questions and routines because there’s a common reason why you’re all there.

Creating dialogue is good – interesting points of discussion where you can learn about how someone thinks and what’s important to them. You don’t get to truly know someone if you are asking closed questions where they can’t reveal their character, and if you don’t get to know someone it’s hard to trust them, and therefore it’s harder to do business with them.

Laughter is a great bonding mechanism, which is another reason why it’s important to have fun and let your hair down.

Asking the right questions seem to be an important part of bonding. What makes a good question?

Open-ended, contentious and topical are good criteria. But most importantly, questions should be about a topic you are genuinely interested in. Then, whatever people say, you’ll find their answers interesting. Questions need to have some JUICE in them. And that’s what makes networking fun; it shouldn’t have to be an effort.

You’re a business philosopher. Where does philosophy fit into this approach?

I like to see philosophy as an exploration. The jungle metaphor is good: you’re hacking through the jungle of concepts on an exploration, with a bunch of people, doing it together, utilising everyone’s skills and knowledge. You might end up somewhere, lost, but you’ve covered useful ground, had an adventure, and crucially you’ve left a path, so if you stumble that way again you’ll know you’ve been there.

By exploring together, you are bonding organically, and it’s actually a lot of fun. It takes the edge off networking.

What’s the endpoint for business networking?

If you’ve bonded with someone at an event, then that’s a good result. If the opportunity is there for future collaboration, then that’s a good result. This comes back to an evolution of the philosophy of networking. That social networks have inherent value (outside of value in terms of business ventures) is a relatively new concept, and I feel it’s been born out of social media which teaches that pure networking for the sake of networking is worthwhile.

Of course, there’s a leap of faith that needs to be taken. Bonding for future collaboration is a long-term strategy – it’s a process.

I went to some networking groups for over a year without seeing any tangible output, the reason you keep going is because it’s enjoyable. It’s not always about the next big deal.

We’ve been talking about using these techniques in a networking environment, but are they are applicable to any business environment?

I’d be cautious about saying you can use them in any situation, but there are scenarios where you’d benefit from their use. They can be used to a) get a different perspective, b) see the bigger picture, c) not take yourself quite so seriously, d) communicate effectively with other people and e) engage in dialogue rather than just exchange words. They can help you gain more out of a situation, which is often a good thing.

How do your workshops and training sessions work?

In order to get engaged with what someone is saying, we must be emotionally evolved. There has to be emotional contact; an emotional investment.

Now, in the early stages of learning these techniques, this requires a certain amount of engineering: of physical space, cognitive space and atmosphere. To create an open expressive dialogue among participants that may not be used to it requires certain conditions to be set.

This process typically involves setting the scene and creating the right environment and then finding the focus of the discussion. This must be done without saying blatantly what the focus will be i.e. the group must evolve the focus (although you can direct and set parameters) and ‘own’ the topic. The focus is then used as a springboard into wider conversation, and it’s very useful, as it acts as the core of the whole dialogue process. It brings everything down to a single point which the group can then build out from.

To put it another way, I aim to create a framework that has holes, which the participants then fill. This creates dialogue, and an organic bonding process that is both fun and relaxed.

By resetting expectations, giving permission to do stuff the participants wouldn’t normally do, and encouraging them to take part in a process that is both natural and organic, the process of networking becomes much more fun and – crucially – more likely to yield positive results.