How to Build a Better Network Using Emotional Intelligence

Feel those tiny pins and needles in your palms when you shake someone’s hand for the first time? Stumble over your words and try to substitute that with a large but forced smile? You can’t take back a bad first impression, but you can increase your chances of making a good first impression using emotional intelligence.

While your education and work experience are relevant to your career, emotional intelligence is even more vital to building your network. Don’t undervalue soft skills. Try these seven emotionally intelligent networking tips to successfully connect with someone for the first time:

1. Offer Kind Compliments Over False Flattery

Faking it until you make it may apply to overcoming personal confidence issues, but it works against you when complimenting someone else. Forgo false flattery and offer kind and relevant compliments. Don’t say you love someone’s professional look if you’d rather be caught dead than wearing that.

Find something kind and positive that you mean: “I love blue on you! It brings out your eyes. I tend to wear black at work.” People can tell when your compliments are false. Don’t be that person.

2. Express Genuine Interest

Face it: Fake smiles are creepy, and everyone knows it. One study revealed that low- to medium-width smiles received better ratings, but ones with too much teeth and high upturns were rated worst — aka creepy.

Ever notice how your expression widens when you’re trying hard to be nice? Aim for a genuine medium-width smile, and leave them wanting more. Express genuine interest in the individual.

3. Be an Active Listener

Soft skills are often undervalued in the career world over more active skills, but they get significant mileage when networking. Practice active listening to make a great first impression — paraphrase what the other party said in your own words to make them feel heard and understood. Brief comments as appropriate, such as “I see” and “I understand,” help establish rapport as well as a type of verbal affirmation. When confused, ask questions to deepen the engagement level.

4. Search for Common Connections

Feel lost and don’t know where to begin when it comes to making a new connection? When icebreakers or conversation starts to feel bland, search for common connections.

Are you attending the same lecture? Do you have similar taste in jewelry? Did you both head for the snacks at the same time? Do you share a similar role or industry? Common connections make the process of getting to know someone easier.

5. Use Their Name Again Before Leaving

Names hold power — it’s a sign of recognition and courtesy when you use someone’s name. While it’s difficult for many to match names to faces, make the effort easier by committing the goal of holding on to one name and one face and connecting the two before the person departs. When you seem to hit it off with another professionally, make sure you use their name again before you or they leave.

6. Ask Open-Ended Questions

Open-ended questions are more likely to produce a more detailed response from which you can further engage the person in conversation. Questions with yes or no response options bring the conversation to a halt. Stop playing checkers with your conversations while networking.

You may feel overwhelmed as a new person among people who know each other well already. In this case, strike up a conversation with the group by asking an open-ended question like “How do you all know each other?” or “What did you think of the speaker/training?”

On other occasions, blatant, positive statements work well, too, such as “I love your work!” or “I like your shoes.” Mean what you say, going back to expressing genuine interest.

7. Use Body Language Wisely

Body language makes up the bulk of your daily interactions with others. One UCLA study found that 93 percent of first impressions are formed through body language, not verbal expression. Your success rate for a good first impression increases through appearance, vocal tone, engagement level and facial expression.

Use the acronym SOFTENUP to break the body language ice: smiling, opening arms, forward-leaning, touching appropriately, eye contact, nodding, undivided attention and positive speaking.

Soft skills are vital to networking, and emotional intelligence tools like applied empathy and active listening forge a common bond with another professional. Feeling nervous about making a good first impression is normal, but when you express genuine interest and try your best, you do better than you think. Now, go mingle!


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Sarah Landrum is the founder of Punched Clocks.

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