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Assume the Best, Get the BestAssume the Best, Get the Best

By Julia HubbelBy Julia Hubbel

When you’re out connecting with people, what do you assume about others when they approach you? Do you always assume they’re trying to get something from you or sell you something? If you do, like most people, you may get rigid and find ways to get away from them, or politely end the conversation.

Let’s try approaching networking with a different perspective. Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsico, quoted in the May 12, 2008 issue of Fortune Magazine, says that the best advice she ever got from her father was to “always assume positive intent.” She said that “You will be amazed at how your whole approach to a person or problem becomes very different. When you assume negative intent, you’re angry. If you take a way that anger and assume positive intent, you will be amazed. Your emotional quotient goes up because you are no longer almost random in your response…..You are trying to understand and listen.”

What would happen if, in your networking, you assumed positive intent on the part of your conversational partners?

First of all, most people are uncomfortable with networking, because we’re all a little nervous about rejection. This may result in our less than best initial behavior. We may be more awkward than normal or act in a way that is not as natural to us because we’re trying harder, largely because we’re feeling scared. This means that some of us might come on either too strong or hold back, appearing either aloof or guarded. In either case our behaviors are misleading, and we can be misinterpreted and dismissed. What most of us really want is to make that personal connection to make new friends and business connections- yet what we do is engage in behaviors that end up pushing others away.

Unfortunately, by its nature, networking often brings out the worst in all of us. When we walk into a crowd full of strangers, we tend to get nervous. We lose what we were about to say and all our clarity. Our elevator speech stays on the basement floor and doesn’t respond to the “UP” button. We often head for the food line, grab a plate and a drink, lean against the nearest wall or find someone we know and stay close by for most of the evening. We don’t want to be sold to or schmoozed…but that very assumption is the point. Not everyone at these events is there to sell or schmooze. Like you, they’re there to meet YOU…great people looking to get connected, make friends, expand their networks and their options.

How do you find these other people? First of all, staying with someone you know all night keeps you from meeting the people who are there to meet you. You have to disengage yourself from your moorings and set forth. Assume positive intent with everyone you are going to meet, put a smile on your face and approach the one-offs and groups of two who aren’t clearly in heavy conversation, the two-offs who are standing at an open angle. Remember- your intent is positive, too, so show it with your face and open body language. Join others with a pleasant hello, let them know your name and ask them warm questions that let you know your genuine interest in them and who they are. Give them good reasons right away to want to trust you. In this case, you have to prove yourself to them first, and let them know you’re not going to hit them with a sales pitch right away (you’re not, are you?) and you earn the right to the relationship over time and contact. That’s how you demonstrate positive intent, and people let you in.

What about when others approach you first? We’ve all met the Hail-fellow-well-met type who nearly takes off our arms with the handshake. This is more about others who are like you, practicing their elevator speeches, hoping to make a good impression and a new friend along the way. If you were to assume positive intent, what would happen? First of all, you’d probably forgive a lot of initial clumsiness of. You’d also hear her out, and then ask her some questions about herself to let her find her bearings. Then you’d probably discover the person behind the pitch- the authentic person, who was much more real than the staged 30-second presentation. By assuming positive intent you got a real connection, and gratitude from the person for being willing to get past those initial moments with her. You might even discover that her product or service did work for you once you got to know her personally, but it was the relationship that needed to develop first, and by helping her along, it happened naturally. You gave her that gift. And wouldn’t you like to be treated with the same generosity and courtesy when you first meet someone?

When we relax, we’re at our best- and that’s when we can make true friends with others and magic happens.

Networking can be challenging. But whether we’re doing the approaching or being approached ourselves, by assuming positive intent, we are giving people the space to be themselves, to make mistakes and to be human. Certainly you would appreciate it when you go to a conference if others would treat you with the assumption that you meant well, and fully accepted your approaches with interest and regard. So when others approach you, offer them the same courtesy. Be open, soft and curious. You may not always find a good match. When you don’t, as a good friend says, “Bless them and move on.” Tell them that you need to continue networking. Squeeze their hand, thank them, and keep moving. And keep assuming the best from everyone you meet. What you put out there is what you will get back, and what you get back, as Indra Nooyi says, “will amaze you.”

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