Approaching people who are smarter, busier, and more important than you

Approaching the Wizard

Approaching the Wizard

One of the reasons many of us don’t have larger networks is we’re uncomfortable approaching people we don’t know. Here, for example, is a comment on last week’s post about relationships:

“It may sound stupid but the biggest impediment to my reaching out to experts I admire comes from a set of tapes in my head that they are too important, busy and clever to have time for a stranger. I think it’s an age and female thing – as my Millennial colleagues have no problem reaching out to anyone.”

Well, I’ve had that same fear, too. “Why would they want to talk with me?” In the coaching I do I find it’s a feeling almost all of us share – and one we can easily overcome.

What are we afraid of?

Part of my own problem was my sense of what traditional networking involved. Even excellent books on networking like “Never Eat Alone” contained chapters like “The Genius of Audacity”, “Warming the Cold Call”, and how to “Be a Conference Commando”.

The chapter headings alone made me uncomfortable.

There could be deeper reasons, too. Perhaps the commenter and I have self-esteem problems. Or we fear rejection so much we avoid making contact all together. Or we’re guilty of a fundamental attribution error that causes us to attribute superpowers to people we don’t know.

3 things to practice

Whatever the root cause, I’ve found being mindful of 3 questions changes how I feel when I approach someone.

  1. What would my reaction be if I were them?
  2. Why should they care?
  3. Why am I doing this?

The first question leads to empathy. It makes more mindful of the actions I take and the words I use. As Henry Ford observed almost 100 years ago:

“If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”

The second question leads to generosity. What is it I have to offer this person? The gift should be genuine and appropriate for the level of our relationship. Before approaching someone for the first time, I always check if they have an online presence or have published something I could read since genuine appreciation of someone’s work is a simple gift everyone likes receiving.

The third question leads to confidence. Examining my motives helps me avoid being manipulative, insincere, or otherwise avoid doing something I’m uncomfortable with. Seth Godin described “the sound of confidence”:

“It’s a blend of two things. “I’d really like to help you,” and, “If this isn’t for you, that’s okay, there are others it might be a better match for.”

Generosity, not arrogance. Problem-solving, not desperation. Helpfulness, not selfishness.”

When I’ve done my best to put myself in the other person’s position and I know my gift is genuine, I can be confident instead of afraid. Yes, they may not reply and might even reject me outright. But, as Seth Godin also says:

“It’s arrogant to assume that you’ve made something so extraordinary that everyone everywhere should embrace it…Finding the humility to happily walk away from those that don’t get it unlocks our ability to do great work.”

“Geeze, it works”

I’m coaching a woman in Germany and I could sense her trepidation on the phone as we were going through her list of people she wanted to know. She’s smart, creative, and charming yet the mere idea of contacting a stranger made her anxious.

But with those 3 questions in mind, she sent a note to someone and  was happy and surprised when she got a response right away. It even included a warm thank you. “Geeze, it works ;)” she wrote me, “And I was so nervous to just approach them unasked..”

It was only in my mid-forties when I started realizing that the person behind the curtain is just a person. No matter how smart, busy, or important they may seem, they have needs and wants like everyone else. When you lead with empathy and generosity that’s free of attachment, your fear melts away and you can approach anyone.

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About John Stepper

Driving adoption of collaboration and social media platforms at Deutsche Bank. (Opinions here are my own.)
This entry was posted in Self awareness and improvement, Working out loud and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Approaching people who are smarter, busier, and more important than you

  1. Newidad says:

    Hi John — there is an outside chance I will see (and hear…) you Tuesday — Steve Kline of Jive invited me.

    Best wishes Michael Norwich

    Sent from my iPad

  2. I got a lot out of this John, thanks. My biggest impediment is that I dislike chitchat, but lately I’ve seen that chitchat plants the seeds for a deeper relationship.

    • John Stepper says:

      That’s interesting, Brooks. Keith Ferrazzi actually taught us to avoid small talk or, more accurately, not to rely on it so much it becomes a crutch or an impediment to greater intimacy.

      At one of his dinner parties, he taught us how to *really* get to know someone in a short conversation. As a result, I find I ask more specific questions (and am more vulnerable myself). Our conversations are much richer as a result.

  3. xplorer says:

    Thank you John – I appreciate the contact and the generosity of your response and am motivated to practice the filters but also be far less inhibited in future!Where are you speaking on Tuesday – is that a public affair?

  4. John Stepper says:

    Hello, Anna. I’m glad you liked this post. (Phew!) This Tuesday I’m at a vendor-sponsored event for financial services firms. Not a public forum, alas. But I will be at a few events this year and I’ll be sure to post which ones so I can meet more people in the Working Out Loud community.

  5. moyramackie says:

    I really liked this post as someone who has no problem standing up and facilitating a group of 160 but am terrified of approaching new people to expand my network. I think my inner critic goes into overdrive at this point. And being an extravert is no help, in case the introverts are wondering! But your re-framing of the issue – in a nutshell it is so not about me and more about them and what I can offer – really made me think. Now just got to go and put thought into action…

    • John Stepper says:

      Try touching the treadmill. That is, take one person and frame the contributions you could give them. Call me if I can coach you. It’d be my pleasure to coach my coach. 🙂

  6. Guy Lipman says:

    This post that Lifehacker pointed me to today suggests that many of the same tips even apply for
    approaching VIPs: http://www.dumblittleman.com/2014/01/dont-freak-out-how-you-can-suppress.html

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