I’ve been going to networking events for years, first as a way to build my career and then as a way to build my business. For some, this may sound like hell on earth. I prefer to think of it as a long-term study in human behavior. Think rats in cages. Okay, just kidding.

Rosetta stone I’m 48 years old. I’ve met hundreds, if not thousands, of strangers in ballrooms with overactive air conditioning and in restaurants with noise levels approaching take-off at O’Hare. I’ve had engrossing conversations and “ewwww” reactions. I’ve been bored silly eating appetizers in the corner and been the last person to leave because I found myself having so much fun. After all of this, I think I may have found the Rosetta Stone of networking. Photo by gaspartorrierio

Before we go any further, it’s useful to introduce the idea of a “stake,” the core driver for how one behaves in any situation. It’s the thing that one can count on when things go awry or when things are going smoothly. Some people might call this your intention but more often, it’s “unintention.” Most people are unaware of their stake at any moment. For me, my stake is usually to learn. No matter what I’m experiencing in life, if I’m learning, I feel okay. Learning is my homeostasis, my thermostat of life.

Now, dissect any conference hall crowd, formal social gathering, or group of industry seminar attendees. Create an expectation among normal adults that they will be interacting with people they’ve never met for the next thirty minutes. The Petri dish begins to reveal mixed emotions and intentions.

My theory is that you’ll find three types of individuals with three different stakes:

  • Givers.  Givers2 The stake for a Giver is to provide value to others, no matter what else happens. Givers operate from a sense of abundance. They give without strings attached. Givers are not looking for anything tangible in return other than a genuine expression of thanks.  They feel good that they can be of service to others and are otherwise unattached to the outcome from their giving. Photo by Mykl Roventine
  • Takers. The stake for a Taker is to get something of value from others, no matter what else happens. Takers operate from a tit for tat mindset. They keep count of who is ahead and who is behind, in both giving and receiving, so that they come out ahead. They give with strings attached–to get something in return.
  • Protectors. Armor The stake for a Protector is to stay safe, no matter what else happens. Protectors are wary of both Takers and Givers, because they can’t distinguish between the two. For a Protector, all networking interactions carry the risk of being taken advantage of. Protectors neither give nor take. They remain safe by holding back and keeping their distance. Photo by UNC-CFC-USFK

Which one are you? At different times in my life, I know that I’ve played all three roles, Giver, Taker, and Protector. There’s no shame in that. What is important is that you consciously choose what role you take on and know the consequences of doing so.

The stage is set. Walking across a hotel carpet, with busy patterns designed to hide the spotty record of past networking encounters, we each assume a position—Giver, Taker, or Protector. What happens when the different pairings interact?

  • Giver-Giver. Nirvana. This is the ideal situation. Both parties feel like they are appreciated when they give, which engenders even more giving. Unfortunately, this pairing is not what most people experience when they are networking.
  • Giver-Taker. Tricked, again. This can work for awhile, until the Giver realizes that she is working with a Taker. Takers may even initiate giving first, with the intention that they will get something in return. At some point, Takers give themselves away by operating from an entitlement mindset (as in,” I did this for you, so now you owe me.”) The impact on the Giver is that this can turn them into a Protector.
  • Protector-Taker or Protector-Giver or Protector-Protector. The drawbridge is up. I’ve combined these three pairings because the dynamic is the same. The Protector holds back from any meaningful interaction in order to remain safe. Handshake
  • Taker-Taker.  It’s just bizzz-ness. What can I say? This is purely transactional and both parties know and agree to it. They know what the game is. Photo by AndyRob

I discovered several years ago that I enjoy myself more and get better results when I’m a Giver. The time goes by quickly and I’m energized when I go home. I make new connections and in some cases, new friends.

However, as you can see from the pairings above, just because I’m playing the role of a Giver, doesn’t mean that I will meet Givers. It may take me a few tries to find “my tribe” of Givers.

Whether you are a natural Giver, a born-again Giver, or like me, one borne from years of living, here are tips for Givers:

  • Don’t take unpleasant interactions personally. You can’t control how others behave but you can control how you respond to their behavior. For all you know, the person in front of you may have caught their spouse cheating last week, gotten laid off, and be taking care of a dying mother. Being a Taker or Protector sounds pretty good right now. Or it just may be the man or woman in front of you is a jerk.  In either case, it’s nothing personal.
  • Sign of a taker Know the signs of a Taker, so that you can steer clear when you need to.  You will sense a “tit for tat” in the moment that something is given by the Taker. It may be very subtle but trust your own feelings. The giving will be less joyful and more purposeful on the part of the Taker. Often, Takers will have a laser-like focus as a way to make sure that they get what they want out of the interaction. They won’t waste time on people who they perceive can’t give them something of value. They seek out others based on status, title, position, experience level, or closeness to someone else with power. Photo by Redvers
  • Know the signs of a Protector–wariness and holding back (not to be confused with introversion.) Even after you extend a giving hand and ask questions from genuine curiosity, Protectors won’t let down their guard. It’s worth a try working with Protectors to shift their idea of who you are and what your intentions might be. However, at some point, if you don’t sense a change, it’s best to move on.

Topics for further research (which may take the rest of my life to fully understand):

  • What causes a Taker to become a Giver?
  • What causes a Protector to become a Giver?
  • How can we create more Givers in the world?
  • How can you recognize Givers, Takers, and Protectors in the online world?

Helping hands For now, let’s try this experiment: Independent of what role you naturally gravitate towards, the next time you find yourself in a conversation with a stranger, choose to be a Giver. Photo by Hamed Saber

Provide your results in a comment below.

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  1. Paul C on October 15, 2009 at 6:29 am

    This is a wonderful, perceptive post about finding ‘the Rosetta Stone of networking.’ Your conceptualization of givers, takers, and protectors is so true. Giver/giver is nirvana. How frustrating/challenging to have an encounter with the other two. How can you turn a taker and protector into a giver?

    Thanks for stimulating thoughts on the dynamics of productive networking.

  2. Mesfin Ayenew on May 5, 2010 at 1:55 pm

    Great insight.

  3. carolross on May 5, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Mesfin. Much appreciated!

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