I Admit It
One of the first things I think when I meet someone is ‘How will this person be useful to me?’

It’s not really a conscious thing — it’s more one of those reflexive tendencies that everyone has but only a few over-analyzers take the time to acknowledge. But it’s definitely happening, and this initial impression can have a drastic impact on what kind of relationship you will form with someone new.

I understand it sounds really cold to just flat-out say “I’m using you and you’re using me,” so let me clarify. While it’s true that we may consider personal gain first, all healthy relationships will involve a balance of benefit for everyone involved. Each and every participant will be benefiting about the same, and therefore the ‘greediness’ will in fact allow for balance, rather than creating a benefit deficit for any one person.

Consider This
I walk into a gallery opening and strike up a conversation with a well-dressed 40-something from Spain. We discuss the art on the walls, his business and my business, exchange cards, and I introduce him to someone else I know who’s also at the gallery.

What just happened? On the surface it was just another interaction at a networking event; it happens every day in every city in the world and few people think twice about it.

But if you do take a second to think twice, you’ll realize that I started the conversation with this particular gentleman because I was looking to establish a familiar group of friends at this gallery for this night (which makes it easier to network, as most people at events full of strangers are just looking for a group to take them in). He may have spoken to me for the same reason, or he may have spoken to me because he works in the broadcast industry and I’m in his demographic (which provides him with direct feedback from a potential viewer).

In discussing the art I may be able to tell him about the influences of the painter (thanks to my Art History minor in college) and he may be able to tell me all about his hometown in Spain (which is information a travel-curious person like myself craves). By asking him about his business, I was trying to learn about a trade different from my own (which is incredibly valuable for a generalist like myself) while at the same time finding out if he needed my services. In discussing his and my businesses, the Spaniard was gaining insight into what kind of industries and methods of communication are ‘in’ for a demographic he needs to keep up with, while simultaneously adding another potential contractor to his call list in case his studio needs someone to create motion graphics for their next project.

To top it off, by introducing the Spaniard to another friend at the gallery I have gained points in the eyes of both people, while they have both gained access to new contacts and resources handpicked for them by a person who already knows something about what they are looking for. We’re all making use of each other for our own purposes, but everyone is gaining equally.

And this is the main difference between being a good networker or friend or half-of-a-couple, and just being so-so at it. Being socially talented means you are able to recognize the exchange of value and make sure that others are compensated when they give of themselves for your gain.

In Other Words…
If you want to have an ample supply of people to use, be as useful as possible.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. It’s actually incredibly tricky, because when you exchange social value, you’re not trading dollars for dollars. In fact, every single person is using a thousand different kinds of currency, and sometimes a few bills of each kind are used in a single relationship.

Also Consider This
When I’m in a relationship I might use my partner as a networking wingman, sounding board for new ideas, accomplice for ridiculous schemes, professional contact, and muse. She, on the other hand, might find more value in me as an emotional support system, comrade-at-arms for obscure causes, mentor (or mentee), productivity taskmaster, and taxi driver (if she doesn’t have transportation and I do).

Both of us would have very different needs, but so long as they’re all being fulfilled, the relationship should remain healthy because the balance has been maintained.

Bad Relationships
Most of us are familiar with what happens when this balance gets out of whack. One person or the other starts to feel used or like they are investing more in the relationship than the other. Feelings may be hurt, bonds may be broken, and the relationship itself could cease to exist (or, even worse, mutate into something hateful rather than useful). This should be avoided at all costs, and if you feel that any relationship is starting to go down this road, it’s time to figure out how balance can be reestablished.

If the only use you can derive from someone else is the comfort of their presence, it may be time to transform the relationship into a simple friendship, rather than getting married or starting a business together. Be aware of the balance in existing relationships, and make an effort to create more effective and mutually beneficial relationships with everyone you meet, and you’ll see immediate results. It will get easier and easier to keep up with the complex social dynamics of any interaction.

Also take the time to be more useful, and you’ll find that it becomes easier to identify the people in your life who are really valuable, and those who are just along for the ride.

Update: May 30, 2016

Wow, this is crazy. I actually use a very similar analogy (exchange of different types of currencies) in my book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, to describe how to maintain this balance (I didn’t realize I had come up with that this early on).

I also say ‘consider this’ a lot, which foreshadows my series, Consider This (though that’s part of why I decided on that monicker: because I use that phrase a lot).

I remember that people were really turned off by how I coldly described these types of things, but I still feel that it’s important to understand these foundational relationships so that we can better enjoy the benefits of them. If we can pull things apart in this way, we’re more capable of enjoying the whole, and maintaining its stability.