I’m interacting with some new groups of people lately. More often than I like, I can feel self-conscious. I was thinking this morning about what I’ve done to deal with that, and came up with:
1. Look both ways before crossing
Especially in virtual groups, where you don’t have body language and facial expressions to help out, don’t be in too big a hurry. I like the Quaker maxim, “Proceed as the way opens.” Most of these other folks weren’t born with the expertise you see in them.
The uncertainty you feel means that your brain’s on alert, trying to spot patterns. In other words, you’re already figuring out how people ask questions and respond to them.
Game designer Darius Kazemi has a succinct post on effective networking. Step 1 is “shut the #$&@ up.” Step 3 is “shut up again.”
2. Move toward the light
It won’t take long for you to think that Malcolm knows what he’s talking about or that Elena asks really good questions. That means you’re interested in what they say, which means you’re primed to say something to them.
Don’t rush; don’t gush. Give your eyes time to adjust to the light, and find a natural opening. It may help to keep the next point in mind as you do:
You learn that Elena asks those great questions because she’s a longtime practitioner in an area where you’re not.
Trust me, Elena’s likely to figure that out quickly. So cast off the ill-fitting Overcoat of Implied Wisdom and go with the nearly-always-appropriate Shirtsleeves of Genial Candor:
I’m just getting started with Whatever. I thought it might be one way to help with [this situation I’m dealing with, described in just enough detail that you can ask for more if you like]…
4. Mind the gap
In any community of interest, you’ll find varying levels of skill, experience, intelligence, and (let’s face it) common sense. If you have a connection with someone who deservedly is highly regarded, be mindful about the sheer number of messages he might be getting.
The gap isn’t (necessarily) expertise; it’s attention. By definition, the better-known you are, the greater the mismatch between what’s coming in and what can go out. Stephen Fry may have 190,000 followers on Twitter, but he’s not sending them direct messages.
The gap extends in other directions, too: people who’ve worked in different settings from you, or whose experience seems less than yours. You probably shouldn’t bite the newbies, and you might want not to call them that.
In a new setting, especially if you’re not yet feeling comfortable, you pay so much attention to what’s around you that you may not notice yourself.
I mean that on two levels: First, how might you be coming across to others? Does your networking come across as connecting, or as nonstop self-promotion? I’m glad that peoople share what’s going on, but if all the links you put out link to your own stuff, it’s going to seem like you don’t get out much.
The second level goes back to my notion of “follow disgruntle.” Pay attention to your discomfort and consider the reasons for it.
Me, I hate to seem uninformed. I especially hate it when I am uninformed. Although I wish I had a quicker path to enlightment (The One-Minute Genius?), a good way for me to do what I’m not good at is to ask people who are good at it. And then listen to them.
6. Lather, rinse, repeat
Back when I developed computer-based training (that’s what “distance learning” was before it was distance learning), I decided that the worst course you’d ever write would be your second. On the first one, you’re still learning, so you’re careful. On the second one, you know it all and throw in every special effect you can. (Blogs, by the way, are not immune to this.)
With luck, when you got to the third course, you sobered up.
But these things are cyclical: once you immerse yourself in something new, you get lathered up–either with enthusiasm, or with instant criticism. Eventually you wash off the excess–but you’ve changed. You’ve integrated the experience, and it influences you from that point on.
The same with things you’re not good at. At one time, you weren’t good at anything. Well, a couple of instincts, maybe. Otherwise–you had to do things that weren’t comfortable so you could take in more information. That’s how you learn what your options are.
Photo of Keye Luke as Master Po from Wikipedia Commons.
License-plate photo by msmail, used under a CC…um…license.
“Money talks” photo by Kevin Labianco, used under a CC license.
“Universe closed” photo by brianarn, used under a CC license.