Today when we think of “building a network,” we tend to think of technology: LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. They are tools that many of us use daily but are struggling to master in our efforts to forge connections that move beyond transactional to meaningful.

And, make no mistake: Meaningful relationships are on the decline. While technology was exploding, personal connections were eroding. Between 1985 and 2009, the average American’s social network declined by up to one-third. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were living in a loneliness epidemic causing declines in physical and mental health, as well as decreased work satisfaction and performance.

We’re talking, Zooming, Tweeting and texting, but we have lost our sense of belonging and purpose in our careers and our lives. Why? Because while it is easy to love the positive reinforcement of the accepted friend request, the like, the retweet, the favor or the forward, the ability to create the depth of an authentic relationship requires more.

Begin with intention and by embracing authenticity in every effort you make. Here are six ways to start:

1. Convert the Ask to an Offer

Before you send that LinkedIn request or draft that email, first consider two or three ways that you could help the person you want to connect with. Are they working on a project you know something about? Are they launching in a city you know well? Most people make an approach focusing on what they can receive from it. Flip your approach, and your connections will begin in a different — and better — place.

2. Ditch the Anxiety

The anxiety frequently associated with networking stems, for many of us, from the feeling that others may perceive us as intrusive or self-serving. It’s likely that we feel this way because we face a daily onslaught of emails laden with requests. When you eliminate the “What can I get?” or “How can I impress this person?” from your efforts to connect, your fear or apprehension should plummet. When you are unafraid, you are more authentic and far more likely to develop a meaningful tie.

3. Adopt a Learning Mindset

When you connect with people virtually, set a goal of understanding their world and their circumstance. Express interest — not just in general but in specifics: Where are they from? What is their family, heritage or culture like? Knowing those details creates the threads with which you can make the ties of connection. If you only talk about work, you miss the underlying attributes that make us human — our shared commonalties and who we truly are.

4. Perfect the Art of Listening

Most of us fail miserably at listening, with research suggesting that most of us are distracted, preoccupied and forgetful. But listening is our secret weapon, even online. The next time you’re engaged in an exchange on a virtual platform, be sure to ask good questions — while focusing on and retaining the answers. Knowing what’s on someone’s mind, what they prefer and what they are excited about are the keys to offering an appropriate and supportive response.

5. Make the Follow-up Personal

Demonstrate that you’re not only serious about connecting but also enthusiastic. If a colleague mentions on a call that she’s on the hunt for a nonprofit to support and you know one that would benefit from her expertise, make that introduction. If someone suggests that he is struggling to adjust to working from home, reach out afterward with the link to a newsletter you’re reading to cope with the same challenge. Don’t wait for the other person to take the lead. Instead, assume the responsibility for keeping the conversation alive.

6. Learn Their Lexicon

When it comes to digital communication, it is important to note what “language” people speak. Taking the time and effort to learn the terms they use will communicate effort and respect. For example, if someone works in philanthropy, does he or she prefer the term “donation” or “gift?” Any efforts you can take to speak the “language” of the person you’re communicating with will reap significant rewards.

Deep, authentic social networks have the power to not only boost your career but improve your quality of your life in every area. If you simply make it a daily practice to listen, learn and help each time you connect with someone, you will notice an instant change in how fulfilled you feel. And remember that at the end of the day, we are all human.

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