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Dear Audrey,

I find difficulty in building and maintaining professional/social relationships. Although I have a job and attend networking mixers and different events, it’s always been a struggle to successfully communicate with people and develop lasting relationships. Is there a way go further than “It was nice meeting you,” or does it have more to do with the person and situation? — Confuzzled


Psychotherapist Meme Rhee answers: Building and maintaining professional and social relationships demands consistent work and discipline, but to approach the professional and social domain identically may not be the most efficient use of your time. Certainly, friendships do form out of professional relationships and vice versa, but being appropriate and clear about your goal at a function can help you tremendously.

In building professional relationships, it may be useful to identify professions that complement your own. For example, if you are a real estate agent, network with interior decorators and designers, or if you are a nutritionist, network with personal trainers and therapists. Targeting very specifically the types of people with whom you can generate cross-referrals can be a more efficient use of your networking time. Communicating to professionals how a relationship can be mutually beneficial and referring to them certainly keeps you in the radar when they might need to refer to you. I have observed many newbies go into networking functions coming across as very needy and asking for referrals. You would benefit greatly by going into a function with some confidence in what you can provide for them. The best professional networkers dedicate a few hours every week specifically to make contact with other professionals. For example, Fridays can be the day you invite someone you met at a function to have coffee. The one-on-one meeting may be the glue that turns a brief acquaintance into a lasting relationship. Aim for a balanced conversation in which each person has approximately equal speaking time. If you find yourself doing these things and still feeling unsuccessful, you may have to examine the type of people toward whom you are gravitating.

In building social relationships, it’s important to be curious and it’s important to be yourself. Those who struggle with social anxiety tend to focus too much on how they will be perceived by others and forget to tap into something that is natural in each of us: the capacity to be curious and interested. In social situations, that means, ask questions! One of the best opening questions to ask is, “Where are you from?” This can lead to a whole discussion about hometowns, immigration experience, family, etc. To be yourself means that you have opinions and ideas and you can express them in a way that comfortably gives the other person an idea of who you are without excessively needing their approval. If you find yourself feeling awkward consistently in either situation, I would recommend therapy which, in my experience, can be the most efficient way to address social anxieties, or help you identify possible blind spots in how you might be coming across.