Networking: The human connection

If you regard 'small talk' at work events as a necessary evil, it could be time to rethink how and why you are doing it. Aimee Foster of NIDA Corporate Training explains how to put the joy into networking

Networking: The human connection

This article was produced in partnership with NIDA Corporate Training.

Maria Hoyle of HRD Australia caught up with Aimee Foster, senior manager learning design at NIDA Corporate Training, to discuss how to get the most out of networking.

Do you dread the idea of networking? Faced with entering a room full of strangers and ‘promoting yourself’, do you just want to grab an Uber and flee? Well you are not alone. And for many people, those anxieties spring from deep misgivings about stepping out of their comfort zone and into a painful arena of awkward – and self-seeking – small talk.  But this is to misconceive what networking is, how it’s done, and what it’s for says Aimee Foster, senior manager learning design at the Corporate Training arm of National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA). NIDA Corporate Training offers a Networking Skills course using authentic performance techniques to teach people how to engage in meaningful – and enjoyable – interactions.

First, it’s helpful to revisit what networking is.

“In the past networking had a very transactional reputation; it was all about leveraging relationships. But we have moved on,” says Foster. “At NIDA Corporate Training we reframe it around connection and conversation. What lights up each human interaction? It’s finding those moments of shared experience - bringing back the joy of learning new things about people. At the heart of what we teach is that every human being is interesting, and every story deserves to be told. Our job as corporate trainers is to give people the confidence to share their stories but also to listen to others.”

Post-lockdowns, NIDA Corporate Training has seen a huge uptick in interest in the course, with people looking to brush up on their social skills after so long without face-to-face communication and with some participants looking to revisit their networking skills as part of the great resignation job search.

Plus working remotely underlined the importance of building relationships – externally and internally. “We realised how much we rely on those established cultures and relationships, and how difficult it was to forge new ones remotely. Networking skills speak to the heart of workplace culture,” says Foster.

NIDA uses fun scenarios, games, and improvisation to teach individuals to relax, be in the moment, and truly enjoy connecting with others.

“Networking should be a nurturing and nourishing experience. When we can manage the breath, manage the nerves, then we can be present. It doesn’t matter if you are a CEO or a potential employee; everyone has an important contribution to make and we can release all of that prior narrative and just be in that moment.”

Watch out – you’re in your own way

A pivotal part of ‘being in the moment’ is active watching and active listening, says Foster.

“That means looking for those key non-verbal communication signs – is the other person interested, what do they need, can we manoeuvre physically or spatially to make them more comfortable? That’s what we learn in performance – how to breathe, how to watch, the physical and vocal presence, how to keep the conversation flowing, how to listen.

“When we are listening, it is authentic - we are being ourselves. When we get nervous, we tend to try to control the conversation or make the other person feel better by talking too much. But by listening, the solutions are there in front of you.”

The calm and presence needed to actively watch and listen can be a hard space to remain in, says Foster. “It’s a case of ‘getting out of our own way’ - calming down to the point of being curious. And if we listen to people’s stories, they naturally want to listen to ours.”

A common stumbling block is an aversion to ‘small talk’ – another concept that needs reframing, says Foster.

“Small talk’ is just rapport building, a way of finding a shared experience quickly. It’s something children do beautifully, when they run into a playground and start up a conversation. We need to remind ourselves that we all have the innate ability to connect powerfully.”

Foster’s quick tips for reining in the nerves in a networking scenario?

  • Remind yourself it’s an opportunity to learn and be curious. “Ask questions, listen, and those answers will always surprise you. Pose yourself a tiny challenge: use the experience to find out something new. It takes the pressure off.”
  • Breathe and stay present.

Learning to network won’t just enrich our careers; it’s a transferable skill that’s 24/7 and will serve us for life, says Foster. “It’s all about being a social human. At the heart of that is loving people and learning about them.”

For more about Networking Skills and other NIDA Corporate Training courses, go to

Beginning her career as a performer, Aimee Foster has worked professionally across film, theatre and voice-over. Following her Bachelor of Creative Arts from the University of Wollongong, Foster completed her graduate studies in film performance at the University of New York – Tisch School of the Arts. She also holds a Graduate Diploma of Education from UNE. Transitioning to corporate training, Foster combined education with creative pedagogy and working as a corporate trainer. Foster has a passion for using creative processes and performance skills to help people communicate and drive positive change.

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