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The Art and (Neuro)Science Of Following Up
Creating the Follow-Up Habit
Imagine you’ve just attended an event where you met several people who would be great additions to your professional network. People whose company you enjoyed and with whom you felt aligned. You reflect on how nice it would be to have an opportunity to continue the conversations with them. Now imagine feeling empowered and excited to follow up, instead of feeling awkward and uncertain about it.
We’ve all been there. The high that comes from making new connections – or reconnecting with people we’ve met before – and the confidence that’s part of the immediate after effect. But what do you do with that high? What’s next?
For most of us, while we have the intention to follow traditional networking wisdom and follow up with these new contacts immediately, we lack the know-how. And without a plan or a systematic approach in place, following up can feel awkward or self-serving. Time passes – even just overnight – the feeling dissipates, and in its place sits that self-doubt and sense of uncertainty about what to do next. And what do we do when something feels awkward? We simply don’t do it.
Note that we’re just talking about uncertainty – not certain rejection, or even implied rejection. Just a little nagging ‘what if.’ And that is enough to take us offline and put us into doubt.
One of the most unhelpful aspects of human neural processing is that whenever we have insufficient information to draw a clear conclusion about a situation, whenever a positive outcome isn’t all but assured, our brains automatically default to the worst-case scenario.
In a networking context, the outcome of that neural processing manifests in telling ourselves all kinds of terrible things about what might happen when we follow up that are not only unhelpful, they’re patently untrue. These include thoughts like:
- If I follow up I’ll look pushy.
- They will think I am just pitching them for work or trying to sell them something.
- I don’t have anything of value to offer that would justify continuing our conversation.
- They don’t really want to hear from me.
- If they wanted to connect, they would have reached out to me.
- They were just being friendly or polite.
These thoughts don’t serve us, so we need tools to help us address the objections we have created in our minds, tools to take us past the awkwardness and pull us into empowerment and confidence in our ability to follow up effectively.
Poetically, the root of the problem lies in how our brains operate, and so does the root of the solution.
Your brain has a compulsion, a hard-wired need; (i) to act in accordance with what you say and (ii) to automate (i.e. make a habit of) any activity or process that you employ repeatedly.
You can leverage this hard-wired need to make it easier for yourself to take any kind of action that you want to take, and to take that action consistently. All it requires is that you:
- tell someone else that you are going to take the action. Your brain will latch onto that statement and make you feel compelled to act in accordance with your stated intention; and
- exercise a little bit of discipline to take the action that you want to take the same way, in response to the same catalyst. Once you have taken the action a few times, the habit-forming features of your brain will take over and make you feel compelled to take that same action any time that catalyst appears.
If you apply this to following up, it might look something like this.
Right now, as you read this, make the active decision that whenever you meet someone that you feel a connection to and alignment with, you will tell them expressly – while they are still standing in front of you – that you are enjoying your conversation with them and that, if it is OK with them, you will follow up in the next few days to continue it.
Make sure to put your own personality and voice around how you express the intention to follow up. For example, I will often say something about the fact that I make a point of collecting people that I find interesting or inspiring and since they are falling into that category for me, I will reach out to them through LinkedIn or by email in the next few days to set up a coffee. But it doesn’t have to be that colourful as long as it’s authentic and feels comfortable to you. It can be as simple as saying you really enjoyed meeting them and want to continue talking, or as detailed as picking a specific aspect of the conversation that you would like to pick up again in some way.
And then, do that. And do it again and again, consciously and with intention, every time, until it feels strange not to do it. At that point, you will know that you have created the follow-up habit. Just like that.
Remember, the critical elements of creating the follow-up habit are:
- That you first consciously make the decision and commitment to cultivating a habit of following up consistently;
- That you commit to expressly telling the people you meet, while you’re in the conversation, that you are going to follow up with them, and;
- That you exercise a little courage and discipline by keeping the follow-up commitment in mind, stating your intention to follow up and then following through, until your brain automates the process.
You will be amazed how your brain will drive you to act in accordance with what you said you would do, and how quickly it will make a habit out of your follow-up process. Before you know it, the process will have become so much a part of who you are that it will feel stranger NOT to follow it than it does to just stick with the program, and follow-up. Your follow-up habit will have been created, and networking will never be the same.