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Let’s Network, Narratively

Hi there. Derek here — glad to meet you. Got a few minutes? I’m writing to share six pandemic-prompted narrative networking strategies and get your feedback.  

Background: I graduated from the Narrative Medicine M.S. program at Columbia University in 2016; now I work at CU as a pedagogy lecturer, social justice project leader and antiracism workshop facilitator. In mid-March 2020, any of my work that wasn’t cancelled due to Covid-19 moved to the virtual realm.  A major healthcare conference I was slated to attend in Boston, as well as a subsequent Provincetown vacation, were also cancelled. I was grateful to have work, but after logging an average of 8 hours a day online I began turning into a Zoombie: hunch-backed, slack-jawed, wide-eyed and foggy-brained. 

Within a few weeks, I  realized how much I had taken for granted the rush and rewards of in-person social networking: grabbing coffee between classes, having dinner after a lecture, meeting up at poetry readings, etc. In an attempt to mitigate what I was missing, I began seeking out webinars, listening to online lectures, and attending virtual workshops. Although informative, they often felt asynchronously lopsided and lacked human interaction. (Notable exception: I hosted a BYOP Zoom pet party that was a howling success.) 

Present problem: Many people are isolated, Zoom fatigue is real, current events are justifiably overwhelming, and professional development is suffering. The good news is synchronous online networking is more than a placeholder until vaccination rates increase and we’re all once again jostling for space on subway platforms. It also opens space for a narrative approach to networking that strives to co-create mutually beneficial meaning rather than promote a postural transaction of knowledge or power.

Six Strategies for Narrative Networking  

Aim for less stress, more feeling. I’ve found that most people are pretty willing to connect synchronously online (vs. trading emails) as long as the networking experience is efficient, convenient, balanced and beneficial. Early on I began to notice energy waning after the 40-minute mark, so I started cutting back. Thirty online minutes seem to provide ample time to meet, share updates, ask questions, and commit to next steps.  

Redefine time. Daniel Pink’s book When helped me reframe time as a place, not just a resource. Tone conveys intent: “When are you available?” can sound subtly passive aggressive, i.e. “What are you willing to cancel to meet with me?” I’ve begun asking, “When is the best time to talk for a few minutes?” It’s a matter of meeting them where they are. One of my busiest clients ( a single mom, executive director, and fitness buff) tends to call me as she’s walking home from school drop-off duty. If a social worker tells me he has a short break at 9:30 p.m., I block that time. Bottom line: where there are barriers, I try to build a bridge; my goal is to create a “when-win.” 

Keep it real. “Cameras on” is not mandatory. Audio-only conversation promotes attentive listening and prevents any unintended visual mishaps. Granted, if I’m on camera and one of my dogs interlopes, I undramatically introduce them as one of my “pandemic silver linings.” Recognizing realness instead of gushing apologies helps humanize the meeting. We’re all in this together.

Don’t wing it. Instead of logging onto Zoom or the phone call with a “So, tell me everything about your career!” approach, I try to do my homework (LinkedIn, Google etc.) to learn in advance enough about the person’s portfolio so I can bring a few informed questions to the table. I make it clear up front that my goal is to learn and connect ­— not pitch a service, product or project. Example: “In your experience as a physician, what are some of the challenges you’ve found implementing telehealth?” or “How has your agency reached marginalized populations during the pandemic?” I save at least 10 minutes for their questions to me.

Find common ground. During a healthcare policy conversation with a former colleague (and potential client), I discovered that our view on politics differed…radically. However, in dialogue we found common ground on the challenges of raising teenagers, and the global need to improve health literacy communication. As we kept talking, we eventually discovered that we share a mutual interest in attending car shows. Finding common ground helped me build up the courage I needed to ask more difficult questions. (And if you want to discuss the difference between classic, antique and vintage cars, let me know.) 

Evaluate the Experience. Was the juice worth the squeeze? If so, repeat. If not, refine.

So far, even during Covid-compliant lockdown, this narrative approach to networking has helped me “travel” around the world one conversation at a time… even now, as I write this blog from my couch/office flanked by two dogs who need my attention. Before I go, I have two questions:  

  • Do any of these networking strategies resonate with you?
  • What others have you tried?

Let’s network, narratively! (I’ll bring the dogs.)

dsm2178 [[at]] columbia [[dot]] edu (Derek McCracken) 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any other person or entity.