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The Science of Networking

Research to help you network better.

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This post was co-authored by Lisa Curtis, CEO of Kuli Kuli Foods.

With the COVID-19 pandemic surging unemployment to rates that rival those of the Great Depression, many of us are looking for work. “You’re going to have to network,” the old adage goes. But how exactly do we do that? It might take reaching out to our LinkedIn contacts who are in a field we want to be in, or asking some of our old co-workers for any leads. It’s our hope, in these conversations, that whoever we’re networking with will be willing to give us something—maybe to throw an opportunity our way or else put is in touch with someone else who might. But how do we get them to help us?

It’s simple. We help them.

The one question that will make you a master networking is “what can I do to support you?” The best networkers are the best givers. They understand that people are most motivated to help those who have given to them, and that their giving isn’t ever a loss but a gain for them in the long run.

Reciprocity theory posits that people get back what they give. Consider a classic study, conducted in 1971 by Dennis T. Regan, that tested this idea. Regan had participants come into the lab and interact with another “student” who was really a confederate, or a spy for the researcher. The confederate was instructed to behave pleasantly (by answering a call, during the experiment, politely) or unpleasantly (by answering a call, during the experiment, abrasively, and hanging up on the caller) during the experiment. Later on in the experiment, the confederate left the participant alone in the lab for two minutes. The confederate either returned with a Coke for a participant or with nothing. At the end of the experiment, the confederate told the participant they were selling raffle tickets and asked the participant to buy one.

When did participants buy a raffle ticket? When they were given a Coke! In fact, participants were more likely to buy a raffle ticket from the confederate who had been unpleasant but had given them a coke than they were to buy one from the pleasant confederate who had given them nothing. These results suggest that when we’re deciding who to give to, we prioritize people who have given to us, even above people we like.

If you’re unemployed, you may wonder “what exactly do I have to give?” Many things. You don’t necessarily have to give something tangible. You can offer to put people in touch with someone in your network who might help them. You can leave them a positive review on LinkedIn, or email their boss and tell them how great they are. You can even offer to look out for opportunities that might match their professional interests that you come across in the future.

Great networkers are great givers. If you want someone to look out for you, then look out for them. You may find that being a giver doesn’t just bring you professional success, but it also just makes you happy, bestowing you with the “helper’s high” that’s been found to decrease our stress and up our joy. Thus, by asking “how can I best support you?” you can find both professional and personal fulfillment.

Note: A version of this article was posted on Forbes, and it is cross-posted on my website, where you can take a quiz to assess your friendship strengths.

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