A pet peeve of mine: people seem to want to “network” for no apparent purpose. You run into people who want to have coffee and talk about how to help each other. I’ve wasted countless hours of my life having one-time coffee meetings with people I never saw again, or worse…people who showed up with a hard-close sales pitch for something I had no interest in buying. I’m not a fan of meetings with no purpose. If I want to socialize and hang out, I’m not going to do it at a business networking group. I’ll go somewhere fun instead. If I’m going to have coffee for what purports to be a business meeting, I need to know the intended outcome. Are you wanting to sell me something? If so, send me an email. Tell me how much and why I should buy it. If you’re hoping that I will introduce you to my top business contacts (and we just met), let’s just skip the meeting because the answer is no. Even if we didn’t just meet, I’m going to want to know what’s in the deal for me.

Reciprocity is a core value of mine, and it seems I think differently about reciprocity than other people appear to. There needs to be a balance between giving and taking in any relationship. The simplest form of reciprocity is a transaction. One party provides a good or service, the customer pays, the deal is settled, and both parties are even. The higher the level of trust, the less need for explicit communication. One of the biggest and ugliest problems arises when someone presumes a level of trust they haven’t earned. That’s the issue I have when a new business contact asks me for a referral. If I don’t know you and there’s been no opportunity to build up any trust, why would I stick my neck out and recommend you? Most often, people who make requests for introductions offer absolutely nothing in return, which tends to lower my trust level. You are sending me a signal that you’re selfish and short-sighted, that you’re just looking to make a quick buck, and that once you’ve gotten what you want from me, I’m most likely never going to hear from you again. You will not sound like the kind of person I would have any confidence in recommending.

Based on what I’ve seen in traditional business networking groups, I believe there is a missing component, the presence of which could exponentially increase the amount of business that a networking group generates. It is the cell. Most people want to focus on meeting lots of people, which tends to be inefficient in cattle-call groups. Sure, you can show up at a local Chamber mixer, hand out 25 business cards, and schedule some coffee meetings. But if you don’t have a clear purpose behind what you’re doing, are you really making good use of the time? Networking in tiny groups can help to create the clarity of purpose that is absent from a lot of mindless networking activity. I believe people become disconnected from their purpose because they don’t sufficiently prioritize building a dedicated cell, or a small group of people who have each other’s back through thick and thin. When you successfully cultivate the level of trust required to make a cell thrum with life, a whole new kind of clarity comes into focus. You start to know yourself as a different person with a different kind of energy. There’s a certain kind of synergy that only happens at the cellular level in groups, and the synergy is born of reciprocity.

In 2007, I remember going to every networking group I could find. I handed out as many business cards as I could manage. I made a lot of superficial connections. Almost by accident, I met with some people with whom I “hit it off.” At the time, I viewed my activity as strictly a “numbers game” and attributed my results to luck. It’s no wonder I ran out of money in 2009. In the intervening years, I came to realize that two-person synergy is a science and an art and that the practice of building one organic connection at a time is the key to creating a successful cell. Some people are more receptive to others when it comes to connection, but the deciding factor is not luck. Part of the challenge is assessing the compatibility of value systems, gauging whether or not the time is right for a new connection, and how various situational factors might aid or impede the process of creating synergy. Regardless of how well or how poorly we make our assessments, we can practice reciprocity with any other individual.

Timing and fit are key. We all need to remain aware of our relational capacity. (Google Dunbar’s number if you’re not familiar). If you don’t have sufficient available space for another deep connection, you’ll likely be more successful in developing a business networking strategy that focuses on shallow connections. You might, for instance, focus on attending large groups where a lot of first-time visitors show up. I’ve found that social butterflies tend to make great matchmakers. They are reticent to meet one-on-one unless there is a very clear purpose for the meeting because their calendars tend to be full to capacity. If, on the other hand, you have ample room for connection and need to fill your own cup, bear in mind that your ideal connection might be someone in a similar situation who also has available space. Reciprocity begins with self-awareness and a willingness to consider what’s happening in someone else’s world.

Synergy can happen in five minutes, under the right conditions. Whether your current situation calls for deep connections or shallow ones, the key to a successful strategy is gauging who is compatible. The word “chemistry” is apropos in both business and dating, because people react just like chemicals do. We all benefit from practicing awareness of the energy in the room. Instinctively, we all can tell how we feel about a stranger even before we know anything. Networking is largely like a chemistry lab. I mix myself with another chemical and see what happens. The process is messy and chaotic at first, with things catching on fire often. But over time, we begin to notice patterns and we become efficient. Most often, as things take their natural course, experienced networkers begin to recognize when times call for deep or shallow connections.

Deep connections are the most resource-consuming; therefore, we can’t have many. We need to exercise the greatest amount of judiciousness when it comes to deciding on our deep network partners. I bonded myself to a lot of the wrong people because people noticed that I had an opening. They exploited the opportunity for gain or sadism, which illuminates the need to guard our networks. Even one bad association can be devastating to the rest of the network. Abusive and manipulative individuals will try to create exclusivity and a dynamic of dependence. I found that each time I associated with a person of poor character, the rest of my network began to fade into the distance. The key pattern I see clearly now: the wrong people don’t reciprocate. They might give generous gifts when they want something, but their goal is always the same. They seek to take as much as they can and give as little as they can get away with. They don’t respect or value the idea of a balanced transaction. They don’t have any trouble sleeping at night if they exploit others. Forging a deep connection with a vampire might cost you everything. You could lose your money, your sanity, your family, and even your life.

But find a good connection — a true, loyal friend? A ride-or-die ally? Nothing is more precious in this life. We must risk the darkness for a chance at the light. We must be daring in our quests. We must exercise patience and diligence as we comb through stacks of business cards and shake hands. Most of the people we meet will not help us and even a few will try to harm us. But we need to keep our eye on the prize: the real reason to risk everything. Entrepreneurship is an art form. Making money is important, but not the primary focus. Entrepreneurs are relationship artists. The art of connection begins with the repeat practice of embracing reciprocity. Giving some to get some. Unlike the con game of the exploitive networker, synergy creates new resources. Both parties walk away from an exchange feeling like they got more out than they put in, because they did. Perhaps a new idea was born. Perhaps a knowledge exchange allowed one person to see a new way to achieve a goal.

Financial transactions are the lifeblood of synergy when a good connection appears. Having coffee isn’t enough. If we want to move into a relationship with someone, we need to fuse the relationship with a transaction, the sooner the better. A transaction might be as simple as purchasing a small product, hiring a service, or donating to a cause. Business relationships facilitate human relationships. Without the transactional glue to bind one human to another, people most often lose touch unless they have another mechanism to ensure regular interaction, such as being part of a shared community.

If you want to begin practicing reciprocity, perhaps begin by thinking about who you’ve met in the last year. Who would you like to know better? What do you have to offer them? What could you propose as a way of beginning to build a business relationship? What’s a low-cost, low-risk way to test the water?

There are many layers to reciprocity, but I believe it may be the single most important thing for each of us to learn in this lifetime.

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