Hand Shake photo from ShutterstockNearly every article or book on career or business advancement will talk about the benefits of networking. Indeed, networking is an excellent way to get referrals when searching for a job or building a business. The problem with networking information is that it’s focused on how it can benefit you, but often doesn’t discuss how to engage the network in a way that facilitates support. Many people go to networking events or participate in networking groups online with a focus on how the other participants can benefit them. But in reality, networking works best when you participate as a giver, not a taker. Here are tips to engaging with your network in a way that benefits everyone.

1. Build relationships first. I was recently asked by someone in my network if I knew anyone who needed VA services and if so would I be willing to pass her name along. I’m always happy to help people in my network; however, I didn’t know this person very well and she didn’t have a website so I could learn more about her. As a result, I’m reluctant to share her contact information because I can’t vouch for her. Networking works because people you trust share information and resources. That means, if I share a contact name, I need to know the value and quality that person offers or my reputation in the network will falter. Members of the network need to know you before they’re willing to refer you.

2. Focus on helping and being kind to others. When you learn about social media, you’re told not only to share your own content, but to share other people’s information and resources as well. It’s good advice. But you don’t want to pick what you share willy nilly. Instead, share items that will benefit your network from people you’d like to work with. Do it from an attitude of giving, not “I hope someone will notice and do something nice for me.” Don’t forget to acknowledge people who share your content. For example, I thank everyone who tags me when they share my content. Usually I get a response that says, “You’re welcome.” But every-now-and-then I get invited to guest write on their blog or be interviewed for their show. That’s what networking is about.

3. Give it time. Whether you’re looking for a job or building a business, you want action now. But in most cases, networks take time to bear fruit. The reason is that a large part of networking is getting to know people and the value they offer (#1). The more value you offer the network (#2), the faster you’ll reap the benefit.

4. Don’t force it. One of the things that I love about my network is that it works without my begging or coercing people to help me. It is okay to ask for help if you need it, but you can’t expect people to give you what you need all the time. Networking from a position of “what can I get out of this,” annoys people. Instead, participate, engage, share, and help your network. It’s the network’s experience of you that will lead to your receiving benefits.

5. Be worthy of the network’s referral. I got an email from someone who said they’d tried a service based on a referral I made, but that they weren’t able to get the support they needed. Again, the networking relationship is based on trust. If someone trusts me to make a referral, but then has a bad experience, that reflects badly on me. So when someone refers you, make sure you live up to the advance hype. And don’t forget to thank the referrer.