Uncommonalities: your secret to surviving mandatory social hour.


I posted this on LinkedIn last year.  It was my first take on putting my book work out into the world.  I am putting it hear to keep everything together. I am not sure about putting things up on LinkedIn or just linking to this blog now.  Maybe I will experiment a little.

Here you are again. The cocktail hour at the conference, training, mandatory work retreat for your company. They may or may not serve cocktails, but the intent is clear: you are supposed to network in a social environment. The organizers set aside this time in order to force people to socialize; build that mysterious 'social capital'. You, however, find yourself standing at a high top table, drink in hand, wondering what you are doing and how long until you can graciously slip out .

If that describes you, you are not alone. People dislike mandatory socializing, and they think that socializing for business gain is even worse. But you are there, and may as well make the best of it. And the best way to make the best of it is to make a game of it.

When I found myself in similar situations, I developed a game I called "Uncommonalities", based on the social psychology of groups and networks. In principal, uncommonalities has a single goal: find the least likely connection you can with the people you are meeting. When you meet a person, start by asking them about themselves to discover the interesting things about them. Not just the things that might interest you, but also the things that they find interesting about themselves. As you inquire about them, share similar facts about yourself and look for the least likely connection you can find. At that point, congratulate yourself on a job well done, but yelling out "I WIN!" is generally a poor idea at most networking events, so a silent celebration is best.

The reasons that Uncommonalities works as a networking strategy are that people enjoy talking about themselves, and when you give them that opportunity by being a good listener, you become a great conversationalist in their eyes. Being a good listener here involves keeping the focus on your conversation partner while still providing the opportunity revealing about yourself.

Sharing about yourself is an important part of the process. Podcaster, television host and comedian Chris Hardwick discusses his philosophy of connecting on his Nerdist podcast. His job on the podcast is to find out as much as he can about people for the benefit of his listeners. Hardwick's podcasts are ore conversational then journalistic, and he notes that "The way that conversations work is that you share stories until you find common ground.  If you just ask questions, people feel like they are interrogated." Even though we like talking about ourselves, conversations that are full of one-sided questions can get uncomfortable for people. Hardwick tries to relate by sharing his own stories. It's a way to give his guests a chance to breath and potential interesting points to connect with.

This is the key of uncommonalities. Finding connections is not just about interrogating your newly-found networking friend. It is about sharing and discovering in balance. This not only gives people that powerful opportunity to talk about themselves, but also a chance for you to find similar traits and experiences. Sharing these similar traits and experiences helps us engender a sense that social network researchers call homophily: the attraction we feel to people who are like us.

Not sure where to start? You are at the same event, so starting there is simple.   The shared practice of that event - your profession, your company, the learning topic - gives you an easy beginning. Ask them what brings them to the event, if they are presenting or if they found anything compelling in the previous day. If conversation doesn't come naturally from there, just try to understand your new connection's path to the event: ask them about where they live, and lived before; where they work and worked before.   Getting people to talk about where they have been and what they have done before is the easiest way to open up the conversation for coming to learn more about them and find that uncommonality.

Uncommonalities works by giving you a framework for your conversations that focuses on personal factors instead of personal gain. People don't enjoy being the feeling like you are connecting with them just to use them for something. Talking people about themselves and discovering your uncommonalities is the way to make a real connection rather than just another business card left in a pile on your desk.