If you want to succeed—at anything—you’ll need people. 

But what if you hate networking? What if, like me, you’re relatively shy and hate “pushing” yourself onto people?

The good news is, you don’t have to push. Just be nice, and if you get a chance, find a way to help that person.

The best way to network as a business owner

I’ve interviewed seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson a number of times. Once we were chatting, and he mentioned that someday he might like to write a book.

I could have jumped in and said, “You should definitely do it… and hire me to help you write it.” Instead, I told him if he ever needs an agent, mine is great. And that if he wants to talk to my publisher, I’d be happy to make the introduction. (Not that he needs it.)  

I didn’t ask him for anything. I didn’t strike while the iron was hot. I just told him what I could possibly do for him: Connect him with great people who could help him. 

Partly that’s due to my personality—I’m shy and hate selling myself—but also because that’s how networking should work.

First, you build a positive balance in your social account. Then, you can ask. Maybe.

Does that mean Jimmie is more likely to contact me if he decides to write a book? Maybe yes. Maybe no. But what is almost certain is that if I had tried to sell him, he would have backed away. (I would have.)

If you’re like me and conventional networking makes you cringe, here are four ways you can build relationships without the ick factor.

1. Never ask for what you want. Ask how you can help.

Provide specific ways you can help that actually benefit the other person. That’s how you sow the seeds of a relationship: by providing value.

How can you provide that value? I cover some examples in my business networking guide, but ultimately, ask yourself if you can help make your connection’s life a little easier. Or how you can provide information or resources they might appreciate. 

Simple example: I saw Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle Is the Way mentioned in an article on The Athletic.com. The site is subscription-only and I wasn’t sure if Ryan was aware, so I sent him a quick note and a link. Easy for me—and a great reason to stay in touch by providing a little value, however small.

And that, ultimately, is the goal. Then you aren’t doing the uncomfortable song and dance of networking. You’re helping. And everyone appreciates help.

2. Focus on goals—but not your goals

Confidence, like most things, is situational. I’m confident on stage as a speaker. I’m confident when I’m doing my job. I’m confident when I’m at the gym, or on a group cycling ride.

But I dread networking events. I dread parties. Walking up and talking to people I don’t know and making small talk… eek. The problem is, while I like people, I don’t like me—at least the me in that setting. 

Then I realized I was making the situation all about me, when it should always be about the other person.

When you’re networking, the people you meet don’t care about you. 

Not in a bad way. But from a networking point of view, the people you meet aren’t really interested in who you are. They’re not interested in what you need. They’re interested in what you do—and they’re interested in what you can do for them

In short, people are selfish. Again, not in a bad way; in a self-defense way. They know enough people who want something from them. They don’t need to add yet another “taker,” to use Adam Grant’s term, to their lists.

But here’s something else they have: Goals. Things they want to accomplish. Things they want to achieve. People they want to meet. Places they want to go.

And that’s where you can come in.

3. When someone tells you what they do, immediately say this

Conventional wisdom says you shouldn’t ask someone you just met what they do. You’re supposed to go deeper. Be more interesting. Be more clever.

Good luck with that. Eventually, especially if you’re at a professional event, “What do you do?” will be a topic of conversation. 

And that’s okay—because instead of sounding like everyone else, you’ll immediately follow up by asking:

“What are your goals?” 

Most people will be surprised by the question. No one asks that

But that’s the most important thing I need to know about you. Because that means I can figure out how I can help you.

For example:

  • I met a woman who told me she had recently started riding her bike more seriously. “What got you back into cycling?” I asked. She explained that she wanted to go on a cycling vacation this fall, hopefully in Europe, and she felt she needed to be in a lot better shape. “That sounds awesome,” I said. And I gave her contact information for Tania Burke, the president of Trek Travel, who I know will give her advice about trips and about training.
  • Since he’s closer to the end than the beginning of his career, I connected the aforementioned Jimmie Johnson with the CEO of Strava, James Quarles. A prominent racer and well-known fitness enthusiast, and the leading social fitness app? Sounds like a perfect match. (Whether it is or not is, of course, up to them, but both were grateful for the introduction.)

In a small way this also helps me because it helps me build relationships that are based on giving. Not on pitching.

4. Never, ever pitch

Say you’re a consultant prospecting for clients. It’s easy to focus on what you do. So that’s what you pitch.

But what potential clients really want is to achieve their goals. They only care about what you do if it helps them get to where they want to go.
The same is true for networking. I only care about what you do if it helps me. I only care about who you know if that helps me.

So don’t pitch. Don’t lead with some version of, “Here’s what I can do for you.” Lead with a version of, “What are your goals?” 

Have that conversation first. 

Then decide if you can help or if you know someone else who can help.

And if you don’t, never try to shoehorn yourself in. Just ask open-ended questions that give the person room to talk about themselves.

  • Ask how they did something
  • Or why they decided to do something
  • Or what they liked about what they did
  • Ask what they learned
  • Ask what you should do if you ever want to do something similar 

Asking questions shows you respect the other person. Asking questions allows them to talk about themselves, which research shows people enjoy as much as food or money.

Do that—show people that you genuinely care about their experiences, opinions, etc.—and they’ll remember you.

And one day you may be in a position to help them, and kick off a great professional relationship… even if you hate networking.

Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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