When looking for a new job or when we need new information, we know we need to work our networks. And we know that often the fringes and edges of network yield the most beneficial information compared to just surveying a few friends. But getting to the edge can be an awkward process. Reaching back out to the former colleagues and forgotten friends who populate the fringes can be uncomfortable, and there's a strong temptation to just stop trying.

Since Mark Granovetter's pivotal research paper "The Strength of Weak Ties," we've known that close friends are rarely as valuable a source of new information, including new career information, as are those long-lost friends and former colleagues that comprise "weak ties." In another study, researchers found that "dormant ties"--literally friends and colleagues for whom you once had a strong relationship but it has since lapsed--are a potent source of all sorts of new information.

In addition to being a common source of job leads, working your network to get referrals though weak ties and friends of friends can also pay off in raw dollars. In a recent Payscale survey of 53,000 employees, those who applied for their job through a referral from a business contact (like a former colleagues and friends) or through their extended personal network (friends of friends) also received thousands of dollars more in average salary offers than those who relied on family members or close friends for a referral.

But how do you get in touch with those old colleagues and friends of friends? Here's a few tips to make reaching out and reconnecting significantly less awkward:

  • Drop the agenda. It's okay to be on the job hunt or to need information, but it's best to approach any reconnection without the goal of getting something (like a job referral) from other people. So, drop the agenda for the first few interactions and focus on getting to know them again. (This is also the reason behind the old networking adage "dig your well before your thirsty.")
  • Start with email. Social media like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat (if you're under 30) are great for finding a friend or colleague lost to history, but not so great at reconnecting. Everyone uses these services differently and everyone has different rules for reconnecting. A connection request might get rejected if others have different criteria for which requests they accept. But email is still an acceptable, professional medium. So if you've got it or can find it, start with email.
  • Seek out a call. In that email, don't ask for anything (see "drop the agenda") other than a phone call. We often default to "let's do lunch" or "let's grab coffee" but these invitations are time consuming and more prone to being declined (or politely excused away). They're also not feasible if geography is a factor. So, start small with a 15-minute phone call or, if the relationship was warm enough before it went cold perhaps a video chat through Skype, Zoom, or WebEx.
  • Look for ways to help. It's always better to be giving into a relationship before trying to withdraw something from it, so look for ways to help. It's tempting here to openly ask "what can I do for you?" but the truth is this question puts people on the spot--they just reconnected with you, how would they know what help you can provide? Instead, be thinking during and after the conversation for ways you can help with an introduction, a resource, or something else.
  • Make it a habit. The easiest way to get over the awkwardness of reconnecting is to do it often. It's best to make a habit of reaching back out regularly, say with one person per week or per month. There are software services like Contactually that can even send you a reminder if you haven't communicated with someone for too long. My personal favorite trick is to use social media to stay on top of what old colleagues or friends are doing or achieving, but then use a more personal medium like email, text message or phone call to say congratulations or offer help.

In addition, if you make it a habit to regularly reach back out to old colleagues and former friends by doing the above, you'll have rebuilt a part of your network and provided enough value to it to where you may not even have to ask for help when the time comes.

Your old...new friends may be eager to give it.

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