When friends and family and colleagues and contacts tell me they suck at networking, I could tell them to give up. But do I? Nope.
Sure, I begin with some troubleshooting. But then, I break out my spunkiest pep talk about how important networking is and how they’ll improve over time. Over time being the key phrase. Which means that, in the interim—while she figures out what constitutes a creepy email and while he learns not to ask for a job five minutes into a conversation—they’re going to annoy the people they reach out to.
Which brings me to you, and what you can do when you’re approached by someone who sucks at networking. Because everyone deserves some strategies to (kindly) deal with terrible networkers while preserving their sanity.
Here are three things to keep in mind when you start getting frustrated.
1. Set Ground Rules
Boundaries are your friend. For example, I always keep in-person meetings to the time planned. I once had a very important contact, who I was meeting for the first time, arrive 25 minutes late to a 30-minute meeting (and she didn’t even bother to send an email or text). So, I ended the meeting five minutes after she sat down, because I wanted her to know that I take punctuality seriously. I respect her time—and mine.
Similarly, don’t feel guilty about setting rules for how you do and don’t like to be contacted. For example, I know many people who will not accept a LinkedIn invitation unless it is accompanied by a note. All they’re asking for is a sentence or two—on how you found them or why you’d like to connect—and if you’re too busy for that, they can’t help but assume that you’re probably too busy to connect in real life.
You don’t want a network full of people who you pray you’ll never actually have to interact with. For your sake and theirs, allow yourself to cut ties if their style of interaction doesn’t work for you.
2. Decide Whether to Give Feedback (or Not)
So, should you let your actions speak for themselves, or should you express (in so many words) why you were turned off by how the other person behaved?
There are two things to consider. First, what relationship does this person purportedly want with you? If she’s meeting with you because you’re established in your field and she’d love your advice, then letting her know that you were surprised she never thanked you for your time is advice that could really help her. If a mutual contact thought you two would hit it off—and you really didn’t—it’s probably not worth mentioning.
Which brings me to point two: You have to consider how much time you’re willing to invest. For example, if someone rambles or gets a little too personal during your first meeting, but you totally see his potential and want to take the time to explain how he could do better—go for it! But if someone rants about his colleagues in a way that has you looking for an out, you probably don’t want to encourage future interactions.
3. Spread the Word
Sharing is caring. Obviously, I’m not suggesting that you live tweet your terrible encounter or post on Facebook that “You waited around all day for a former colleague you thought had a better grip on professionalism.”
However, I like to think no one has “be a terrible networker” on his or her list of life goals. So, by sharing some cringe-worthy moments—with names and details obscured—you may help a person who wouldn’t know that emailing a contact five times in a row without hearing back or that name-dropping someone he’s only just met is considered bad form.
Just remember to think about your audience. First, be careful when sharing the tale with a mutual contact. If you meet with a friend-of-a-friend and recount the entire nightmare for your mutual connection, don’t be surprised if it gets back to the new contact. Sometimes the best way to share the message is by telling it as a laugh at my pain cautionary tale to someone new to the networking world.
When a rookie networker says, “I’m so nervous about meeting someone who is so important in the field. I might fan-girl out…” Take your response a step further than, “Don’t be nervous,” and say, “Actually, I’ve been on both sides of that meeting before. Some have gone well, and some not so well. Here’s one thing to avoid…”
Everyone has awful networking stories. So, if you meet with someone who is a terrible networker, use the strategies above to preserve your sanity—and maybe even help someone else from replicating that mistake.