How to Network With Busy People

I began writing this article on an airplane last week, and it came out to be more than 9,000 words, almost 20 pages when printed. So I decided to break it up into smaller chunks and publish it as a series. This article is the start of that series.

Often the people we’d most like to network with are also the least accessible. Busy people are bombarded with endless emails, phone calls, social media connections, and more. Making contact with such people can be difficult because so many others are trying to do the same thing.

Nevertheless, busy people can make very valuable contacts. They’re usually busy for a reason – lots of people want to connect with them, either for business or personal reasons.

I believe I have some solid, practical advice to share on this topic for two reasons. First, I’ve dealt with hundreds of busy people during my 15+ years as an entrepreneur. I’ve had to learn what works and what doesn’t in the real world of business. I also know how busy people tend to filter and process their communication.

Second, I am a busy person who processes a lot of communication. Since I started in 2004, I’ve received tens of thousands of emails. I’ve seen people use many different tactics in their attempts to make contact with me. I don’t have the capacity to accept deeper connections with everyone who wants to build a bridge with me, so I have to be selective. I think you’ll gain many insights from getting a glimpse at how I decide when to explore a new connection and when to pass. The way I handle new communication requests is similar to what other busy people do. I think you’ll see that most of these decisions arise from common sense and necessity, but many would-be networkers seem to overlook or ignore these realities – and they pay the price for it.

In this series I’ll focus mainly on business and professional networking, although many of these ideas can be applied to personal networking as well. I admit that the line between the two can be rather fuzzy, depending on which field you work in.

Some people maintain a crisp separation between their business contacts and personal friends. For me there isn’t much difference since I work in a field where people tend to be very open and friendly, and the people I meet in a business context are the same people I enjoy having as friends anyway.

So here are my best tips for networking with busy people.

Understand the busy person’s perspective.

You must accept up front that a busy person simply cannot or will not give you a serious slice of their attention without a good reason. The mere fact that you contacted them is not a good enough reason to expect them to reply back.

Don’t presume you’re entitled to a response just because you took some action and reached out to the busy person. Don’t presume you’re supposed to get a response just because you had an intuitive feeling to contact the person.

Busy people may receive dozens, sometimes hundreds, of incoming communications per day, 365 days per year. They don’t have the capacity to treat every request as equally important, so they must triage. This usually means they’ll spend very little time processing communication from people they don’t already know.

In your mind you may have a very good reason for contacting this person. You may have the noblest of intentions. But if you can’t see reality from the busy person’s perspective, you’ll probably make mistakes that will result in your being blown off.

Busy people aren’t trying to be rude. They’re simply trying to be effective. They have to choose between spending an extra hour or two each day on email and phone calls vs. spending more time with their families, working on key projects, or just having a life. Would you willingly volunteer to spend an extra hour per day answering email if it wasn’t absolutely necessary – for the rest of your life with no end in sight?

Busy people are sometimes criticized for blowing off a lot of communication. They often seem unresponsive to “reasonable” requests. I used to think such behavior was very rude when I was subjected to it, but then I was put in the position of experiencing it from the other side. When I realized I was spending hours each day answering emails and reading blog comments – and having little to show for it in terms of inner fulfillment or outer results – I knew I had to be more selective.

Many bloggers I know pride themselves on their willingness to read and respond to every comment or question someone submits. Some have criticized me for not doing the same, as if I’m some kind of elitist for not following suit. But the reality is that most of those critics get less than 1% of my web traffic. When my website was at a similar traffic level to theirs, I felt the same as they did. I could easily send everyone a personal response, and it didn’t take that much time. I enjoyed the interaction with my readers.

But take a good thing and multiply it by 100, and the dynamics become totally different. It became overwhelming to keep up with every piece of communication once my blog began receiving more than 100 comments and dozens of emails per day.

What’s your limit? Could you handle 100 communications per day (36,500 per year)? How about 1,000 per day (365,000 per year)? Eventually you’ll hit your breaking point and need to pull back.

Our discussion forums have seen hundreds of thousands of messages posted in less than 3 years. There’s no way I could read all of that, let alone reply to it. I can’t even read all the feedback people post specifically about my articles. If I still had open blog comments enabled (the forums require free registration to post messages), we’d probably have a few million comments posted by now. Trying to keep up with all of that myself would just be insane.

The reason I’m sharing this is that a lot of people simply don’t understand the busy person’s perspective. Is it rude or inconsiderate to decline to spend 12 hours a day reading and responding to feedback, 365 days a year? I don’t know any busy people who think that would be a wise idea. Invariably they decide to blow off a lot of incoming communication. The only difference is what combination of people, technology, and processes they use for triage purposes. Some use filters. Some use assistants. Some hire bodyguards.

If you can accept that busy people must triage in order to be effective and have a life, and you can respect them for setting priorities, you’ll have a much better shot at building a bridge with them.

On the other hand, if you resent such people for being busy and not responding to your communiqués promptly, you’re not going to become a very good networker in general.

If you want to get good at networking with busy people, you must accept and embrace the busy person’s reality instead of getting stuck in your own perspective and being unable to empathize.

To be continued…