Identifying missing perspectives in your network is relatively easy. And finding people who can fill those gaps isn’t terribly difficult. But how do you attract people who differ from you? How do you make yourself the light in the room to which they are drawn? In this article, I propose three pillars of inclusive networking that you can use, not just to bring people to you, but also to bring out the best in them. These pillars are: acceptance, respect, and empathy.
Author’s Note: This article is adapted from my forthcoming book Network Beyond Bias.
Inclusive Networking Begins with Acceptance
The first step in inclusive networking is acceptance. In fact, you cannot be inclusive of someone at all until you can accept them as they are.
For many of us, our first instinct when we encounter conflict is to attempt to convert or persuade the other party to our way of thinking. Instead, go into the conversation with the mindset that the person you are about to meet is an expert.
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey says “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” For many of us, though, both critical thinking and preconceived notions become obstacles to understanding. Asking challenging questions can be perceived as disagreement, resulting in more conflict and greater barriers to understanding. That’s why I try to accept first.
It was this critical step that led me to be a vocal, if imperfect, ally to the transgender community. I had spent so much time getting in my own way, trying to understand the “why,” that I missed the whole point. Finally, I realized I don’t need to know why something exists to acknowledge that it’s there. Similarly, I don’t need to understand how someone developed their woldview to accept that it exists. And I don’t need the social context and psychological frameworks that led to someone else’s identity to believe that their identity is real.
When you meet someone new, accept them for who they are. Accept that their experiences, opinions, and talents are theirs and theirs alone. Once you’ve mastered accepting what is, you’ll be amazed at how much more quickly you can move to understanding.
Inclusive Networking Requires Respect
Respect is the next essential tool for inclusive behaviors. My favorite definition of respect comes from my kids’ karate dojo:
respect, verb, to feel or show polite or courteous responses to the wishes or judgments of others
You’ll notice that there is no mention of agreement. No requirement exists to give the person money for their cause. On the other hand, there’s no room there for hostility. You can disagree, just be polite about it. That’s it. Easy peasy. Right?
Let’s work with some concrete examples to make it real.
- You probably know how to spell and pronounce your CEO’s first and last name.
- Imagine an executive at your company expressed a strong political view after hours. She asks for your opinion, which is in contrast to hers. You would likely find a diplomatic response, and you would do so quickly.
- When your boss presents during a meeting, you don’t roll your eyes, scroll through Facebook, or interrupt her. (At least, I hope you don’t.)
- You’re aware that your most important client is allergic to shellfish, so you avoid taking him to seafood restaurants when you’re in town.
You’re polite and considerate when you have to be. But can you say that about everyone you work with? Watch your behaviors for a few weeks and see if you treat everyone with real respect. If not, you’re going to limit your ability to engage in inclusive networking. Do some deep reflection on your biases, assumptions, and intentions. Then think about the impact you might be having on the people around you.
Empathy: Your #LifeGoals for Inclusive Networking
The ultimate tool for inclusive networking is empathy. Once you’ve mastered acceptance and started practicing universal respect, it’s time to level up.
Empathy is the ability to understand how someone else is feeling, and then to adapt your own behavior accordingly. If you’re thinking, “WHOA. That’s awfully touchy-feely,” you may be right. But that doesn’t make it unimportant. In fact, it’s an easy way to set yourself apart as a great leader in a hypermasculine or otherwise toxic work environment.
Perhaps you think having empathy is like having a sixth sense. The truth is, empathy is a skill that can be developed over time. Start small, by naming your own feelings as you have them. Over time, build up the courage to ask others how they’re feeling. For example, you might say, “I heard your presentation went really well this morning. That must make you feel proud of your work.” It feels weird at first, but the feedback you’ll get (watch for verbal and nonverbal cues) will make you want to continue. Pretty soon, people will be coming to you for advice because you’re so good at understanding them! When this happens, you’ll know your inclusive networking efforts are truly paying off: you’ve become a mentor!
If you want to dive into this topic further, I highly recommend Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradbury and Jean Graves. The book includes a self-assessment to help you target your efforts where you need the most help.
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