Networking – Relationships, connections, links, acquaintances, friends, contacts…
Defining our interactions with others can be difficult at times. This has become more apparent to me this summer in Washington DC , the capital of the United States. Here, networking, “the act of exchanging information with people who can help you professionally”, has not been simply an element of my experience…it has been a key component intertwined into every experience that I have had. Every opportunity is an opportunity to network in Washington DC. Giving somebody your business card is as expected as giving somebody a smile when you first meet them. Since arriving in DC, my ability to network has improved, my collection of business cards has increased and the number of LinkedIn connections that I have has enhanced significantly. The question that I consider is how valuable are each of these relationships? Can we place a value on a relationship? Furthermore, how many of these new found contacts could also be described as friends, as acquaintances or as mentors perhaps? When you are exposed to so many new people at one time, and when you are encouraged to work on building new relationships throughout your life…how do you maintain genuine, authentic, reliable, dependable relationships?
On my first day in Washington DC I was told that “the United States is extremely polarized at present”. Little did I know that this statement would be re-iterated to me on several occasions in different contexts and settings by different people throughout the summer in DC. To say that the United States is polarized implies that there are extreme differences in opinions throughout this country. From the very first time I heard this, I began to question how this affects the society as a whole. If people have such differences of opinion and people are extremely passionate about these opinions, how do the two sides interact? How do they deal with their differences? Is it possible to relate to, to negotiate with, to communicate with, connect with and interact with, those that do not share your point of view? What are the metrics required to measure a good relationship? What are the makers and what are the breakers of the relationship and can you have completely opposing views to somebody and still manage to maintain a functional, amiable relationship.
The Washington Ireland Programs Class of 2012 arrived in Washington DC almost eight weeks ago. We arrived as a group that knew very little about each other. Thirty big personalities from a small island brought to the United States of America, the land of the freeand thehome of the brave. Fifteen males and fifteen females. Fifteen students from the North of Ireland and fifteen students from the South of Ireland. Assumed similarities and differences based on factual biographies…perceived friendships based on facebook friends in common. These were the measures of our initial friendships. I quickly became very aware that my personal past experiences and my perceptions of the people around me as we stood in Dublin airport would plot my route from Dublin to DC and back again. My experience would be molded by the people that surrounded me. From day one I started learning a great deal from the group. It was apparent from the very beginning that we had a dynamic, vibrant, passionate group. As expected my very first impressions of the friendships that I would form were a little off. Expectedly, my perceptions of people from their biographies were very different to reality.
As I mentioned in a previous blog, the twenty nine participants on this program have thought me more that I could have ever imagined. Although I have taken a great deal from the speakers and the events that we have attended, without a doubt the life skills that I have gained from working with the group are invaluable. We have celebrated our differences and proved that friendships are feasible despite differences. I have been challenged by my peers on many levels. We have exposed sides of our personalities that others would not usually see. We have initiated friendships that are plausibly lifelong friendships. I would like to point out that I have purposefully used the word “initiated”. With regard to first impressions…others may not agree, but for me, I believe I am still making first impressions. Although eight weeks can seem like a lifetime when you live in a bubble with people, in reality, it is very short. I am acutely aware that there’s still a great deal I have to learn about each of the individuals on the class of 2012. If these are in fact going to be lifelong friendships then we are certainly still only making first impressions…eighteen years from now these eight weeks will have only been the beginning.
When I think about the professional networking I have done in DC. I question how successful it has been? I draw comparisons between making friends and making contacts. For me, the line is very blurred. Some of the strongest “professional” relationships I have built through my experiences on this program have been made a result of bringing personal experiences into the discussion, very often golf or Irish music. I question how one can accurately measure the success of networking? Surely forming one close relationship is better that making ten loose contacts? At a personal level maybe, but at a professional level maybe not? My experiences have ranged from fun and frivolous to fundamental and fierce. I sometimes see networking as a very austere and rigorous process. People have priorities, time commitments and little patience and for this reason they act fast and aggressively, often perceived as insincere and artificial. This is the type of networking that I do not enjoy.
Thinking back on experiences I have had throughout my life, I am intrigued by the different relationships that I have had, the friendships that I have created and the immense impact that people have had on my life. I truly find people fascinating. I consider which of my relationships are the strongest at both a personal and a professional level and I consider the approach I used in each case when forming these strong relationships. For me at the age of twenty one preparing to leave Washington DC to return to Dublin, I have chosen two words to describe the approach I aspire to take in the future when building, improving and strengthening past, present and future relationships.
These two words are… Artless Elegance – Natural, without artifice, unpretentious.