What is Networking, Really? Tips from a Healthcare Professional
Networking is an important part of any comprehensive career strategy regardless of market sector—and healthcare is no exception to the rule. As someone with ASD, it took me a long time to really understand the concept of “networking” in any meaningful way. I struggled (probably more than most folks) to grasp this concept in pieces, with which I could make connections between the goals I had for myself, and the specific actions that I could take at any given time that will move me in this direction.
Networking is a word that has a corny feeling, but the actual activities that take place as part of this overarching umbrella can be powerful, and deeply meaningful! The connections formed through the forged relationships act as a powerful force making its way through our economy’s interconnected web.
Critically, and possibly the most important reason for engaging in any type of networking interaction, is that these relationships built around our workplace identify and help us feed our sense of importance. The positive feedback support loops that exist because we choose our networking partners.
This is one of the most fundamental needs of any human being, and one that must be fulfilled in order to feel day-to-day life is good, and that its components hold meaning—we must be able to feed, within ourselves, our sense of importance. This sense of purpose—this greater meaning—is best met when it is bolstered by our daily activities and interactions.
The Logistics of Networking
Whether you are a seasoned professional or a new graduate, I hope that those first paragraphs resonated with you in a way that helps you gain a greater appreciation for how deeply human this otherwise corny term really is.
Indeed, there is so much more to this process, than simply gaining contact information! When pressed, most new graduates will eventually admit to some lack of clarity about the process specifics, even if they generally understand the concept of networking overall. It would be challenging to find a graduate who had not recently attended one or more events with the word “networking” in the description. (“Mixer” can be misleading. Proceed with caution!)
From a more boots-on-the-ground literal perspective, networking means any activities that directly or indirectly introduce you to other professionals within your field, and in related fields. Networking does not have to be a formal networking event to be networking; arguably, we’ve witnessed a decentralization of networking structures, encouraged by technology and greater recognition of social inequities that can be perpetuated or reversed.
Technology’s role in networking has become a leading one over the past decade. LinkedIn provides the most commonly used forum for the most independent networking opportunities, but it is not the only one. We see these overlap with social media platforms, which is expected because this is about information access and relationship development at the core.
Networking well would mean that these initial encounters are followed by future interactions in a manner appropriate for the nature of the relationship and the circumstances. Again, technology plays a leading role in facilitation through communication channels and forum access.
Networking is key to building relationships that sustain your sense of well-being throughout your career, which will naturally fluctuate as you encounter different challenges and unexpected hurdles, as well as when you achieve meaningful milestones or reach great goals! Feeling isolated professionally increases the risk of burnout, which can lead to further health problems and worsen pre-existing mental health conditions.
Human nature prefers familiarity over the unknown. This has been demonstrated by research time and time again, and this is an important concept within networking. You increase your odds of connecting with an opportunity you can leverage for yourself because someone remembered you and how your professional skillset overlapped with the opportunity. Admittedly, this description can make networking sound a bit selfish, but if we are uncomfortable with the potentially transactional nature of some interactions, we must stop and remember this within the context of relationships, and their development.
The Nature of the Networking Relationship
Networking relationships are similar to friendships, and similar to relationships with your colleagues, but not quite one or the other. I found it helpful to think of the concept as a blend with these two markers, like boundary points, to help define basic rules in my head to prepare for communication expectations, conversation scopes, and ideal touchpoint frequency, as examples.
Starting on the friend end, similar to how you have certain friends with whom you feel much closer than others, the closeness of your networking relationships can and will vary quite a bit. Networking relationships also push value in both directions. We help others; others help us. This is important to remember.
If we go to the colleague end, discussion topics will generally be within the context of the professional area for the most part. Network contacts from related fields can be terrific sources of insights that help you better understand how future markets may be developing, and what technologies are working, for example. The healthcare sector, undergoing a dramatic post-pandemic restructuring and experiencing a surge in innovative technologies being developed and deployed, is particularly exciting from within that context of cross-industry opportunities for learning.
Networking Builds Professional Confidence
Networking can build genuine, durable confidence in the self. Confidence is closely coupled with knowledge, and this is a nuanced point we make here. When humans have incomplete information, they will be naturally more reticent to try and draw a conclusion from it in that state—i.e., they need to fill the gaps. The more gaps we fill, the more clarity we gain and the more confidence we can feel about a conclusion we make with this aggregate information.
The confidence is further enhanced by the perspective-sharing that occurs between networking contacts. Understanding how other people are “seeing” a situation lets you put together an average of these perspectives and build a more sensible framework for guiding assumptions. Importantly, it helps you identify the extremes, which risk your being labeled “controversial.”
Start With Listening
When we are babies and just beginning to interact with the world around us, we are exposed to other human beings. We are engaged in interactions between us and other human beings; at times, we are just observing an interaction between others, without direct involvement. We learn a tremendous amount by observing how others act, which persists throughout our lives.
We learn lessons on how to do this well by being directly taught (more so when we are younger), and also by learning and mimicking what we see without being directly told (increasingly so as we age). A mentor is someone who helps you move more quickly to the latter stage within your professional realm.
Listening is a key skill that must be leveraged for every relationship we ever have in our lives. Relationships revolve around communication, but our default is imbalanced. You are not likely to be an exception, and you do not benefit from giving yourself the benefit of the doubt.
The skill of active listening—listening that is focused and demonstrative of our engagement with the speaker, by way of body language and when and how we form our responses—is a specific skill. This skill can be strengthened with intentional learning and practice. Few people are born with a natural ability to be active listeners; a great example that shows how often we default to this type of listening would be in consideration of how frequently someone will forget the name of an individual to whom they were just introduced.
If you can learn how to remember the name of everyone that you meet, the next steps will become quite clear to you, as will the opportunities.