Real-time conversations crucial for networking in a virtual world

By Nancy Settle-Murphy, Guided Insights and Patti Anklam, Hutchinson Associates

This issue of Communiqué focuses on planning and facilitating conversations most likely to help you cultivate mutually-rewarding relationships. We also discuss ways to follow up to keep both parties engaged and interested in moving forward together.

In this issue, we refer primarily to voice-to-voice conversations, which may entail the use of other tools, such as web-based web conferencing or meeting technologies. Of course, you can augment those voice conversations with text-based real-time conversations using instant messaging and chat, or asynchronous conversations which may involve email, a bulletin board or discussion forum of some kind.

Making and sustaining connections is much easier when you can catch someone in the hallway or cafeteria for an ad hoc conversation that can build naturally into some type of shared work. In the virtual world, however, you must thoroughly plan every conversation to make sure that participants are convinced that taking any future steps will be worth their while. After all, you have very little time to build an initial connection that will extend beyond that first meeting. Here are some steps to help you forge meaningful new connections for your virtual network through well-planned conversations.

  • Knowing what you want to achieve: If you simply want to establish a connection for follow-up some time in the future, you may only need one or two conversations. If, however, you want to explore opportunities and take action that will build toward a long-lasting relationship, you’ll need at least a few conversations, each one building on the one before. In the virtual world, with very limited opportunities for real-time interaction, we need to be explicit and direct about what we’re seeking from the other person, and explain why the connection will be mutually beneficial.
  • Finding a connection that matters: A conversation designed to discover a basis for relatedness between two people lays the groundwork for forging a deeper connection that can lead to shared action. Tempting though it may be to push for action at the beginning, most people need to relate on some level before taking the next steps. By all means, use email to set up the first conversation and establish objectives. But make sure that your first conversation is voice-to-voice, since so many vital cues are relayed through tones, inflections and pitch. If the fit seems good, suggest a concrete next step for follow up. If not, be honest about your intentions so you don’t leave the other person hanging. Always acknowledge the others’ time and willingness to talk.
  • Paving the way for exploring possibilities: If you have established a connection that’s of mutual interest, the next conversation should allow you to explore potential areas for collaboration. Capitalize on your interest immediately by following up via email ASAP with specific areas that you feel represent real possibilities, and suggest some days/times that might work for a next conversation. Send relevant documents in advance to help focus the conversation. At the same time, remain open to possibilities you hadn’t thought of.
  • Brainstorming ideas. Plan to brainstorm for possibilities during this next conversation, and then identify opportunities at a later time. This way, you both have a chance to reflect on the possibilities, weighing the pros and cons, before making decisions. Try to book both of these conversations at the same time, one for divergent thinking and one for convergent thinking. Don’t leave more than a few days between conversations, or you risk losing interest. Brainstorming is best done via phone, at a minimum. Web conferencing tools, used either asynchronously or synchronously, can boost output considerably, often within a surprisingly short period of time.
  • Opening up opportunities. Prepare for the following conversation by sending a summary of the output from your brainstorming session, highlighting a few areas with the most promise. Ask your colleague to do the same. Your goal for the next call: Agree on one or two opportunities that both of you feel are worth additional time and effort. Make sure you’re on the same page in terms of intended outcomes, timing, responsibilities and resources required. Mismatched expectations at this juncture can quickly sour a new relationship. Before you close the call, agree on next steps needed to pursue a particular opportunity.
  • Taking action. At this point, you may map out suggested action plans in writing, during an ensuing call, or both. Be as detailed as you can in terms of timing, deliverables, roles, metrics, critical success factors, interdependencies, commitments needed, and resources required. Ask that your colleague mark up your document with any changes, or better yet, arrange a call to review your proposed action plan in real-time, jointly editing the document using a web conferencing or meeting tool. Make sure you agree how and when you’ll follow up, track progress, surface issues and make future plans.
  • Checking in and following up. While you may be eager to discover what progress your colleague has made, realize that conflicting priorities often intervene, despite the best intentions. If s/he has missed a deadline, pick up the phone to check in instead of sending an email reminder. Likewise, if you can’t fulfill a commitment, don’t ignore the fact that you’re late. Call or send an email to acknowledge your tardiness and explain the reason; be sure to indicate when you will be able to respond. In many cases, checking in can be easily done via email or through another asynchronous means of communications. When issues arise, having a quick conversation can take less time than a barrage of emails. Even when no actions are required, pick up the phone or send an email simply to say hello. These social exchanges can act as the best kind of glue to cement long-distance relationships.
  • Closing the conversation. Not all possibilities lead to real opportunities, and not all opportunities lead to a shared desire to take further action. Be prepared to stop at any point if you both agree, either implicitly or explicitly, that additional time and effort may not be worth it at this point. Agree to what extent it makes sense to stay in touch to keep the connection going, if you both feel it may be fruitful. For example, you might schedule a call for next quarter, include each other on a particular distribution list, or meet face-to-face if the opportunity arises. Or you may both decide that there simply is not enough of a connection to warrant another conversation any time soon. Be sure to acknowledge the other’s time and energy, contribution of ideas, and openness to connecting; close with an offer of your own future availability to respond to requests for ideas, connections to others, or problem-solving help.
  • Maintaining the connection. This person is now in your network, and you should have learned about what topics are top-of-mind for her or him. You can follow these up by forwarding news items (from email or the web), tossing out ideas, or making introductions of people whom they may not know.

Forging meaningful new relationships in the virtual world, especially when we’re reaching out to those outside of our usual working circle, takes considerable planning, effort, and tenacity. To form a valuable new network connection, we need to have real conversations. Persuading each other of the potential value of such conversations is often a tough sell, but one that will be rewarded if you can identify an opportunity and take action in ways that will pay off for both of you..


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