At the beginning of a 2-day Networking class I teach at American University’s Key Executive Leadership Program for government executives, I ask the participants in the session to tell me what they think of when they think of “networking”.

Without fail, most of the responses have a negative connotation, with repeated statements like:

“Something I hate”

“Fake interactions”

“A necessary evil”

“Something I dread doing”

I can relate to the sentiments, as I too have had the same reaction when I thought of approaching people at an event for “networking” purposes. I don’t like the idea of connecting with people with the ulterior intention of “using” them for something. And I don’t like others to connect with me for only that reason either.

But here’s perhaps another way to look at the concept of “networking”. We humans are by nature social beings. Whether we like it or not, the bulk of our daily transactions are determined by our interactions with others and business and other daily affairs are conducted by who we know. Whether we need a plumber, a doctor, a hairdresser or a job interview – our need is ultimately filled by a person we know or know of.

Our relationships with others nurture our basic need for connection and allow us to build communities and exchange goods and services. When we know and trust someone, we are more likely to draw upon that person when we need advice, a service, or friendship.

If we look at the word “capital”—which are assets available to us—we find that “social capital”, or who we know, is just as important as any other type of capital.

Social capital is comprised of: The active connections among people: the trust, understanding, and shared experiences that bind members of human networks and make cooperative action possible.” (Cohen & Prusak; “In Good Company”, 2001) 

So the reality is: Our social networks play a vital role in our lives and overall well-being. Networking is merely actively seeking to increase connection and build our social capital. The broader and more diverse this social capital is, the more access we have to new ideas and different ways of thinking.

Here are three practices to help reframe your thinking and approach to networking:

1.  Seek to contribute first

Rather than approaching meeting others from the lens of what you can get from them, think about what you can offer. How can you be of service to the person you are connecting with? You have much knowledge and experience and your own networks that can be helpful to someone else. When you come from that place of service, it is easier to relax and connect with others.

2.  Value and learn from everyone you encounter

Instead of thinking of networking as something you have to “go do”—think of connecting with others as an essential part of your existence. Believe that everyone you meet has something valuable to teach you, and deserves your attention. Those most different than you may be those who teach you the most—and the more you diversify your connections, the more expanded your mindset and ideas may become.

3.  Take time to keep connected with those you meet

When you meet someone interesting, connect with them via email or LinkedIn—not with the intention of adding more people to your rolodex, but with the intention of learning more about them. Once a month, invite someone to breakfast or lunch with no agenda except for interest in learning more about what they do. You’ll be amazed at how much you learn and how your relationships deepen by doing this.

Networking does not have to be a painful and superficial exercise. It is really about connecting with people and forming relationships. If you approach meeting new people at all levels with curiosity, genuine interest, an intent to serve, and sincere appreciation—it is a way to enrich your life.