Shaping the Culture: How to Create Inclusive Networking Events

This is part two of a two-part series. See part one here.

In his book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, Daniel Coyle explains that humans use “belonging cues,” or behaviours, that create safe connections in groups. You’ve felt these before: eye contact, turn taking, attention, body language, vocal pitch and whether everyone talks to everyone else in the group. If a group isn’t inclusive, you sense it immediately.

“Belonging cues add up to a message that can be described with a single phrase: You are safe here,” writes Coyle. “They seek to notify our ever-vigilant brains that they can stop worrying about dangers and shift into connection mode, a condition called psychological safety.”

When we receive these belonging cues, our social brains light up, says Coyle. They help us to understand that we have a place in the group. We are close, we are safe, we share a future.

Planners have to strive to include some belonging cues in the structure of their networking events. For us, this meant creating roundtable icebreaker activities where people took turns to speak. We asked fun, provocative questions unrelated to business to get people speaking, listening and making eye contact. Only once the room warmed up did we turn everyone loose to network without structure.

Your networking event will go farther if you help members feel safe and included. Here are three lessons that have helped us create a powerful, inclusive format for networking events that has now been adopted in more than 30 cities across North America.

Lesson 1: Be inclusive in your marketing

When you create promotional materials, strive for images and language that promote diversity and inclusion. Indicate that attendees will each have a chance to speak and listen, and that your event will strike a balance between relationship building and business promotion. If your members can see themselves in your marketing, they will show up.

Lesson 2: Tell your members what to expect

Use your welcoming remarks to create culture. Set guidelines for behaviour (e.g., turn-taking); encourage attendees to foster curiosity and listening; and provide a common purpose that is greater than personal gain. Encourage members to share their experiences and expertise and to add value to others by making connections and following up.

Lesson 3: Use a semi-facilitated networking format

Unstructured networking turns into a pitch-fest; too much structure and people feel demeaned. Use a semi-facilitated event to create safety and give everyone a voice. For example, begin with structured conversation starters then open up the networking afterward.

Professional meeting planners and event organizers have an extraordinary opportunity to create and influence the culture of the groups they serve. By offering thoughtful, inclusive and well-structured events, planners and organizers can enable their participants to create meaningful connections and feel a genuine sense of comfort and belonging. For an introvert — or anyone who has ever felt marginalized by traditional networking — this experience can be transformative.

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