Networking, intergenerationally

During a recent professional development workshop that I facilitated with Katie Nelson called Career Exploration and Education: An Ethnographic and Narrative Approach, we received one of the best questions from a recent graduate. Realizing that to get better at networking, she was going to need to get better at talking to people from different generations, she asked for advice specifically about how to network with people older than her.

I loved this question, and I could see by how all of the folks in the room leaned in, eager to engage, that it might just be a great way to break the ice when you are next at a networking event, or beginning an informational interview. Being meta to ask about networking as a way to facilitate networking might just be one of the better “asks” I have heard in recent memory:  What a great way to get the conversation going!

But back to the workshop: Our discussion focused mainly on etiquette, specifically terms of address, writing reach-out emails, and appropriately sized “asks.” I’ll discuss each in turn first sharing what we actually said, and then – reflecting back – expanding on some of the things I now wished that we had thought to say in the moment.

Terms of address – many of the older folks in this room happened to be professors, and/or PhDs who spoke to feeling a bit taken aback when approached by much younger people (mainly students?) addressing them using their first name without being invited to do so. As surrounds the current conversation about pronouns, a good rule of thumb seems to be that if someone doesn’t tell you how they would wish to be addressed, you should ask. As a woman, I do notice the tendency to more frequenly address me using my first name where male colleagues receive a title + LN, so I would say that more awareness to names and titles is in order.      

What I wished that I had thought to add: Along with my collaborator Criscillia Benford, I have also been giving workshops lately about more effective workplace conversations. For these trainings, we use improvisational theater games and techniques – for many reasons, but one of the big ones being that improv gives people a chance to practice making mistakes. And no matter what other activities we do, we always do a name game, because names are rightly understood to be extremely important in the workplace. However because they are so important, names can also often become the source of much anxiety. As human beings we will get other people’s names wrong from time to time, and we will forget them. In such moments, the important thing is to focus on the relationship. Remind yourself that it’s really about making the other person feel seen, and that you can ask for help.

Bringing awareness to the importance of names can also remind us that when we are first introducing ourselves, we can share ways of helping people remember our names, for example when I tell people that I am named Anna Marie, I often add that I am named for my two grandmothers – my father’s mother Ann and my mother’s mother Mary. That way if someone forgets my name, they can also say “oh, but I do remember that you are named for someone in your family…” and that helps with the relational work. The improv game equivalent is someone remembering the animal that starts with the same letter of your first name (or the sound or motion, or adjective you chose….etc. etc.). We can bring a bit of play to this task to make the work feel a bit lighter.

Writing reach-out emails – the conversation then turned to composing the “reaching out” email and the need for salutations and closings. But as the conversation proceeded, it really came down to questions of tone, directness, length and other aspects of writing style.  The conclusion we came to as a group was that it is a good rule of thumb to err on the side of formality when you are making a request to someone with seniority. 

What I wished that I had thought to add: from my own personal experience receiving such messages is the importance of giving the other person an “out,” following the negative politeness needs of someone who would rather not have to say “no” outright, but perhaps may need to, for example in the instance of a person reaching out for an informational interview while the organization is currently in an active job search. Organizations that I have worked for have had that policy (and announced it on the website that contained the job ad), but still, requests would come in. Simple as it is to say that we are unable to grant the interview request, still it does take energy – at least it does for me – to do so because as humans we are hard-wired for connection. I want to honor requests to connect, but it makes me feel a twinge of frustration to have to tell an applicant that they should read the job ad carefully.

The good news is that all of these little bumps in the road are very easily avoided by just giving the addressee of a reaching out message the benefit of a small “out,” something along the lines of “if for whatever reason you aren’t available or able to respond, I do of course completely understand, thank you for your time and attention.” This small expression of appreciation and awareness can go a very long way!

Framing up an appropriately sized “ask”

This topic became the focus of the discussion, mainly because stories about being asked for inappropriately large requests begat other such stories from members of the older generation. Examples included requests to write book summaries, to review a manuscript, or the request “help me find a job” with no further specificity or additional information. So I then asked the group “well, what kinds of things would you like to be asked for?” Some of those were: information about good references about specific topics, sharing giving feedback on a project idea or proposal, suggestions for events to attend or people to reach out for particular fields of expertise.

You’ll notice that all of these are small, and helpfully specific. They reflect an ability on the part of the ask-er to put themselves into the shoes of the ask-ee by making the request simple to complete. All things being equal, people usually prefer to be helpful, they like to be able to feel as though they are being of assistance, so making it easy for them to be able to do so really is a win-win.

What I wished that I had thought to add: is that there’s so much that older generations can learn from our younger colleagues, and I wish we had asked her in that moment the same kinds of questions: “what kinds of things would you like to be asked?” “how would you prefer to be approached?” “what would be conducive to making you feel more comfortable and included?” Something I saw being talked about a great deal on the Twitter feed of the conference, as just one source of input (from folks likelier to be in the younger generation) were micro-aggressions reflecting a lack of awareness on the speaker’s part of the priviledge embedded in their perspective when interacting with people with less power. We probably all could stand to practice being more comfortable with noticing when we make such mistakes, talking to colleagues about mistakes when we notice them, and issuing repair and apology.

Some last thoughts:

My story approach teaches me that having done a bit of work before a networking event or a conference can be very useful because you have a pocketful of small stories at the ready (you may already see why I call them “pocket examples”).

If you’re gearing up for some networking (inter-generational or otherwise) a great way to prepare for making connections might be to spend some time thinking about your formative experiences – the big events in your life that have made you who you are (or make you think the way you think). In my case, it is likely the fact that I move so much as a kid that I am so aware of connections and care so much about helping people make them. A great example given by Karen Wicre in her excellent book Taking the Work Out of Networking is “I was an army brat, and that’s what led me to real estate. I want to help people put down roots.” These little stories give your interlocutor something to respond to and they invite stories in return, which make conversations effortless!

A major takeaway from Wicre’s book is that in a rapidly changing world, we increasingly need the support and resources of community. So here’s to learning how to better make connections in support of what’s next!