Before you think I’m some kind of born socialite, it’s worth understanding why I was forced to become highly social.
In the first year of high school, I had only one friend. I decided to attend a school in a completely different postcode to junior school. One person from my previous school joined me. He had family friends at that high school and introduced me to two of them. We got on well and things started out well.
One day during lunchtime, those three boys began running away from me. They didn’t want to be around me anymore. (I later found out their parents didn’t like my Australian heritage and told them to hang around “their own kind.”) The result was devastating and I had no idea what to do.
I’d walk around the school grounds at lunchtime by myself, hoping to meet new friends. It was embarrassing and it was a dark time.
The only way to survive high school was to become highly social.
I had nothing to lose; things couldn’t get any worse. This one incident in high school led me down a strange path. I spent most of my teenage years hanging around people who wanted to be gangsters and who got laughs out of seeing people violently hurt. I chased social significance because of that incident. The harshest version of significance is violence.
Those friends, turned bullies, eventually saw how significant I had become because of my new violent friends, and they did everything they could to stay on my good side.
20 years later, at work
I recognized a guy from high school when moving desks at work. He was friends with the kids that had led me to be socially isolated in high school.
I thought nothing of it. Then one day I started getting comments on social media and direct messages from these same high school bullies. They were back to have fun with my life, two decades later. For a few days they left public comments about me everywhere they went claiming to expose what they called lies. The information they were basing these so-called lies off of came from their friend who worked at the same company as me.
What they weren’t prepared for was what followed.
They went on LinkedIn and tried to continue their bullying. One night, I checked a blog post I had published and their comments were littered all over it. The comments section exploded with complete strangers who tore the bullies to pieces. They were outnumbered.
Hundreds of people chased them off social media, reported them, sent them emails, stalked them on other social media platforms, and metaphorically spat in their faces. People I knew joined in, too, who had the facts. They knew the lies they were spreading were false. I did work at a company with tens of thousands of people after all, so it would be near-impossible to make up stuff about the work I did.
The bullies never came back. I didn’t lift a finger.
This life experience shaped me in a strange way. I learned to be social as a survival mechanism that I still use today.
Here’s my harsh take on networking that will help you meet more people who might change your life.
Give before you get
The biggest mistake people make when networking is asking for something too early.
The mantra that works for me is this:
“Give and expect nothing. Then give some more.”
This simple shift in psychology is game-changing. It will turn you into a social butterfly without even trying. Trying to have a conversation with an end goal in mind distracts you from having a real conversation.
You don’t need to get anything and that strategy is how you be effective when socializing.
The word “networking” creates strange behavior
People stop acting like themselves when they think they’re networking. They take on the persona of a robot who doesn’t have feelings. This social reframe helped me:
Networking is a conversation.
Don’t try to network. Try to have a conversation.
Pro tip: be genuinely interested. Ask questions and delve deeper into somebody’s life. Pretend you are researching them for a work project that pays you $10,000. Watch the shift in how you listen. There will be a lot more silence.
Shut up about yourself
This one is a reminder I have in the back of my head. It’s easy to ramble on about ourselves and think we are the center of the universe.
It’s good to get over yourself.
Nobody wants to socialize with a knob who is in love with themselves. People want to talk about topics of their choosing. Let them. Watch the rapport quadruple when you let them. Wham!
Get good at icebreakers
Part of my day job involves cold calling. This is where social skills are put to an extreme test. When you’re phoning someone you don’t know, how quick you can break the ice will determine whether they keep talking to you or simply hang up.
An icebreaker I’m using right now is, “how are you finding this crazy health crisis?”
The battle with this invisible illness is a fate we all share and it seems to radically shift a person’s focus which breaks the ice. To not answer a question about a problem that we’re all in together seems illogical to the brain. So what do we do? We answer the question, therefore, breaking the ice.
Share personal stories
Podcaster, Tim Ferriss, says he shares vulnerable stories to get his guests to open up. I’ve used this tactic a lot too.
For example, when I’m talking about the mystery illness forcing some of us back into lockdown again, I mention my girlfriend who went to China when it all started or my colleague who was unlucky enough to be infected, and nearly died. These two deeply personal stories instantly capture a stranger’s attention when I’m cold calling them.
Personal stories are the easiest way to network and get someone to open up to you and the idea of a deep conversation.
Pay attention to the person who is silent
While you’re being social, notice the person who is silent or who rarely makes a comment. They are the ones to watch. They are the interesting people that everyone else in the room is underestimating.
Over the years I’ve spoken to these quiet people and found incredible solace in their wisdom. One afternoon at a work event I was asked to make a piece of art out of the leaves and sticks in the park we were in. I saw a man all by himself who was homeless, in the corner of the park. Rather than make art with my grade one craft skills, I went and spoke to him.
His story was fascinating. He was alone in the park on a beautiful day and coming down off the heroin he had taken earlier. I asked him a question and then he went and told me his life story. The point of the story was that he was lonely and heroin was what he felt was the only escape from his loneliness. It was at that moment that I saw what might have happened if I didn’t cure my loneliness back in high school.
Nobody else spoke to this man in the park. People in the crowded park walked passed him and dismissed him because of his looks.
The silent man in the park that day changed my life in a tiny way.
He taught me about how important it is to feel connected to something bigger than yourself.
Be ridiculously kind, first
I have added kindness to my social interactions over the years. A 13-year-old reader sent me a message the other day asking for writing advice.
I did a small kind gesture for them because of their passionate message. It felt good for both of us and that’s the power of kindness. We both won’t forget each other.
You can’t forget kindness easily.
Kindness is a rare precious metal, scarcer than gold. And it’s golden for social interactions and bringing people into your world.
No one starts out as highly social. You’re not born social; you learn to be social and anyone — even you ! — can do it.
Being social happens intentionally when you realize that you need other people to feel connected to something bigger than yourself, and avoid the dark times’ loneliness can bring to your life.
You can be highly social when you act generously and listen rather than talk.
Wisdom is found in the solace of good conversation.
This article first appeared on Medium.
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