Q: Despite my busy schedule, I hate saying no to networking requests when I can avoid it, but I’m starting to reach my limit. How do I pick and choose which meetings to take and who to decline? Any advice on declining, even when they’re being persistent?
A: The good news is that people understand that networking is the best way to find a new job – and just about anything else, whether it’s finding a doctor, a dentist, a hairdresser, advice on preschools, or any other information you might need. Reaching your limit, however, means you’ve got networking fatigue. You can only meet with so many people and pass on so many names before you recognize that helping others is taking its toll on you or your work. I appreciate the fact that you say “yes” to networking requests as often as you can because it is valuable to the asker, but there are many people with vast connections who could spend all day networking and as a result, not get their own jobs done.
When it comes to choosing who to accept and decline, there are a few ways to decide. If the people who contact you have a great bridge – that is, a close connection to someone who you respect, or someone who reciprocates when you send them a networking contact or ask for favors – those are the ones you should agree to talk to. Another “yes” situation is when the asker is someone who you believe your organization could hire. Anyone you don’t know who asks you through LinkedIn because they read something about you but doesn’t have a warm contact is probably someone you can decline. Even if you don’t meet with someone on a networking basis, there may be ways that you can still support them by suggesting professional associations, networking groups they can join, or suggesting they connect with their College or University’s Career Services office or alumni organization.
Persistent networkers have to understand that people have real jobs and real commitments and they need to appreciate that people can’t always say “yes.” If people get pushy and fail to recognize that they’re asking for a favor and your free time, it should get a lot easier to say “no.” Networkers should be gracious when they ask and gracious if you have to decline. Networkers also have to recognize that in networking meetings, they need to value that person’s the time. They should have an agenda, know what they’re looking for, and know the information that they want to get. They should expect to pay for coffee or lunch, or wherever they’ve invited you – and not anticipate that your idea of a great lunch is spending an hour talking about them, and then having you pay for the privilege.
In terms how to decline, you can try to offer people alternative resources, wish them luck in their job search, and hope that they recognize that people are busy and may have to delay. See if you can offer 15 minutes on the phone, and acknowledge that you have other commitments on your time.
People are tired and busy. Networkers give away time and expertise, and you only have so much to give. You need to set limits for yourself; for example, a colleague may say “yes” to one networking meeting a week, recognizing that’s her way of paying it forward for all the people who helped her in her job search. Boundaries like these can help you stay productive without reaching your limit.