Stop networking at meetings

networking at meetingsIt’s time to stop networking at meetings. No, I’m not saying we should only listen to lectures at meetings. Rather, I’m going to explain why using the term “networking” for all occasions when attendees get to talk with one another subtly directs attention away from can be the most valuable outcome of well-designed meetings: connecting with others.

This post was inspired when Victoria Matey shared the following thought about networking at meetings:

Random thought.

We talk about virtual networking not working as if the in-person networking has been fixed.

I agree with Victoria’s observation, but think it’s important to consider a wider perspective. Here’s an expanded version of my brief comment on the ensuing LinkedIn conversation.

Networking at meetings

When you imagine “networking” at meetings, what image comes to mind? You’ll almost certainly think of a group of people, either standing around or sitting, eating and talking to each other. When do these conversations occur? The dominant perspective of networking at meetings is that it happens during socials, meals, and breaks.

For some meeting constituencies, this is understandable. Suppliers, vendors, and sponsors are present to do business, meet up with existing customers, and get new ones. “Networking”, whether during a sponsored meal or social, or a tradeshow is an appropriate term. You’re building or strengthening your network of prospective and current customers. Note that networking is an asymmetrical process conducted by those who have something to sell with those who may be interested in buying.

Connecting at meetings

Participants, on the other hand, come to meetings for content and connection. That’s connection, not networking. Unlike networking, connecting is a fundamentally symmetrical process. Any participant may have something—information, a perspective, or a problem—worth offering or receiving. Connecting is a spontaneous peer-to-peer process, where meeting participants fluidly give and receive, learn and teach, through conversations and interaction. Connection can potentially benefit any participant, and the benefits are often mutual, i.e. connections made lead to positive outcomes for everyone involved.

When do participants connect at meetings? Traditionally, the answer is the same for connecting as networking: during socials, meals, and breaks. But it doesn’t have to be this way!

Limiting connection to socials, meals, and breaks means participants miss out on the most powerful way to create connection at meetings: around relevant content.

In other words, there’s every reason to incorporate opportunities for connection into meeting sessions.

To do this, you use session formats that encourage and support connection around relevant content in the sessions. Not afterward or in between.

Meetings—whether in-person or online—that do this successfully are overwhelmingly preferred by nearly all participants. That’s why I’ve been designing and facilitating such meetings for the last thirty years. They work!

Facilitating valuable connection during meeting sessions

As you might expect, to facilitate valuable connection during meeting sessions it’s not enough to tell participants to go and talk to each other. Nor does it involve turning sessions into speed-dating or adding irritating “icebreakers”.

Instead, it means designing sessions that:

  • Improve learning by actively engaging participants around content rather than listening to it or watching it.
  • Leverage the rich and extensive knowledge and experience of participants in the room.
  • Increase opportunities to meet like-minded peers via discussion of session content, ideas, and questions.

In addition, you need to include sessions at the start of meetings where participants can learn about who else is present that they might want to get to know, where common issues and problems can be aired (and later addressed), and where relevant expertise and experience in the room is uncovered so that it can be tapped as needed.

Thinking of connection as networking skews perspectives

Labeling all occasions when meeting attendees converse as “networking” conflates fundamentally different means and goals of interaction into one bland term. Calling what happens outside the sessions “networking” obscures the rich possibilities of interaction between participants that good meeting and session designs provide.

So let’s stop talking about “networking” at meetings, and start talking about connection. More important: don’t just talk about it but use meeting and session formats that support and create connection around relevant content during the sessions!

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