Friends are an important part of anyone’s professional network: They generally have connections in different industries than you, and because they know you so well, they’re often able to come up with valuable ways to help you advance your career.
But I’ve found that it can feel weird to network with your social circle, whether you’re asking for an introduction or conducting an informational interview. Blurring personal and professional lines with a close acquaintance puts the relationship in a new context—and that can sometimes feel uncomfortable.
To me, it feels like there is more at stake when I involve someone I spend my free time with in my professional life, because I often care about a friend’s opinion of me more than that of a networking contact. I also don’t want them to feel like I’m taking advantage of them by asking for favors or introductions.
To successfully network with the people closest to you, start with these four strategies that made it easier for me to reach out to my friends with professional questions.
1. Be Direct About Your Intentions
If you want to connect with a friend to talk about his or her professional network, make sure to be straightforward about your intentions. There’s nothing worse than meeting up with someone for a drink because you thought he wanted to simply hang out—and then realizing what he actually wanted was to talk about all the people you might be able to connect him with.
I’ve found it’s best to simply send an email making it abundantly clear what I’d like to talk about. If I want to get some insight into a friend’s industry, for example, I might write, “I’d love to chat with you about your work experience.”
This approach can seem formal, but in my experience, setting expectations upfront makes the actual conversation go much more smoothly.
2. Pick and Choose
You can only ask your friends for so many favors before they may start to think you’re taking advantage of the relationship—so make sure to use your favors wisely!
Before you ask someone to help you out with a professional question, think about how long it’s been since you asked him or her for a networking favor. If it was recently (i.e., within the past couple weeks), you may want to hold off or ask someone else in your social group for help.
If you can’t get around reaching out to a particular person a few times in a row (if, for instance, he or she is the only person you know in a particular industry), it can help to acknowledge the frequency of your requests: “I know I’ve been emailing you a lot about my job search lately—it’s been a really difficult search for me and I really appreciate all of your help.”
3. Do the Dirty Work
When you network with your friends, it’s important to make the process as easy for them as possible by taking on some of the harder or more time-consuming parts of the networking tasks.
For example, if I ever ask a friend to introduce me to one of her professional contacts, I like to type up a short paragraph about myself that she can copy and paste into her email introduction. I also try to prepare for a networking conversation with a friend the same way I would for an informational interview with a stranger—by coming up with specific, targeted questions—so no one feels like I’m wasting his or her time.
4. Don’t Cross the Line
While you may feel more comfortable with your friends than networking contacts, it’s important to make sure your requests don’t cross the line. For example, never ask a friend to stretch the truth for you. This includes asking him or her to post a recommendation on LinkedIn or write a job reference for you if you’ve never worked together professionally.
You should also never ask a friend to do something for you that makes him or her feel uncomfortable. This may seem like a no-brainer (no one wants to make friends feel uncomfortable), but can actually be a little tricky.
For example, I wouldn’t have an issue with passing along a referral to a VP at my company, but a friend of mine may work at an organization where that’s considered unacceptable. To address this issue, I usually give friends an easy out when I ask for a professional favor, so they don’t feel trapped by my request: “I know it’s a very busy time of year for you right now, so I completely understand if you don’t have time to get to this.”
With the right strategies, you gain valuable professional advice from your friends. However, remember that it’s not a one-way street—as you network with your friends, you should look for ways to help them, too. After all, that’s what being friends is all about.