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For many people the mere word ‘networking’ generates discomfort.  There are limitless sources of advice for how to best manage the awkwardness of networking events – a quick search surfaces recommendations from Huffington Post, Fast Company, Forbes, and Harvard Law School among many others.   The common thread is how to build relationships that will come in hand when needed.

From my own personal experiences, you’d think by now that I would have worked out a process for how to approach randomly matched colleagues, or a set of questions to fall back on.  On the contrary, I approach each meeting as a new experience.  By approaching the meetings as broadly as possible, unexpected links surface. While I do like to look up what information I can easily find on my colleague online, I take this with a grain of salt.  It does serve on occasion to suggest some areas that may be of mutual interest, but it has also been misleading.

I recall one of the most interesting randomly matched conversations I had was with a guy whose online profile did not suggest much overlap in interests.  We were connected via our alumni network and our professional careers were in completely different industries.  Initially we had to take a step back and explain our work in more basic terms but shortly thereafter we realized that we had parallel functions and the differences were mostly just the terminology.

Another random match resulted in me spending half an hour talking with a colleague about our respective spouses without a single work related sentence exchanged until we got up to say goodbye.  “What department do you work in?” was the only question answered relevant to our day jobs.  We did not discuss our work but through shared stories of how we met our spouses we bonded.

It is hard to predict where randomly matched conversations will go, and there value lies precisely in the unexpected.  While having a predetermined list of questions may reduce angst at facing the unexpected, it will also reduce the breadth of possibilities.  Each encounter is unique, and yes, occasionally there is an awkward silence.  But that simply becomes par for the course, such that silence stops being awkward and just is a stepping-stone towards conversations to come.

Being randomly matched may remind one of encounters in passing through the hallway, however there is a fundamental difference when both parties knowingly sit down together.  Passing by in the hallway, people are present but thinking about where they are going. When each has made time for the other, both anticipate sitting in front of someone they do not know well.  Each person is in the same boat, and this mutual knowledge lowers expectations, as both mutually understand the difficulties of finding conversation with someone they don’t know.

So when you sit down with your randomly matched colleague, talk about whatever seems to come easiest.  Maybe you’ll find out that they can help you resolve a challenge you’re facing in a project you’re working on.  Maybe you’ll be able to recommend the best Vietnamese restaurant near the office.  There isn’t a right or wrong topic, simply ask a question and listen to the response and watch how conversation will begin to flow.

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