In my mission to abolish networking awkwardness, I’ve written about reaching out to potential future colleagues and following up with new contacts. Getting back in touch with people from your past can be tricky, too. Most of my clients have had at least one valued mentor with whom they’ve lost contact. By “lost contact,” I mean that the parties haven’t spoken in at least a year. But the time elapsed is not main issue: it’s the fact that it now feels too awkward to get back in touch.
First, if you’re feeling a bit squeamish about renewing contact, good for you. If there’s something you want to get from renewing a relationship other than the relationship itself, it makes sense to be aware of your own motives and deal with them appropriately.
Some people handle the awkwardness of renewing old professional relationships by establishing friendly contact first, and then only later asking for the assistance that prompted them to renew contact in the first place. That can work for you and the other person, if you actually intend to remain in contact after you’ve asked for (and received) the person’s help.
On the other hand, if you plan to renew contact primarily for help, and don’t know to what extent you’ll stay in touch, it may be safer to be up front. If you start with a friendly hello, later followed by a request for, say, a LinkedIn recommendation, only to follow that with no contact at all, your acquaintance will likely feel deceived and used.
If you renew contact with your request, the recipient might still feel used — or they may feel flattered, or simply neutral because you’re engaging in behaviour that’s normal in the professional world. At the very least, they won’t feel deceived; you’ve been upfront about your request (for that recommendation on LinkedIn, 15 minutes of their time to learn more about their field, their advice about where else you should be applying in addition to the organizations you’ve already identified, their ideas about what you could be doing to make yourself a more appealing candidate to employers…). Now your contact has the option of saying yes or no, and they’ll know exactly what you’re hoping for.
So, lay it out clearly for your soon-to-be-renewed contacts. Keeping your requests specific and reasonable helps keep awkwardness to a minimum. Set the context briefly, by saying or writing something like “I’ll soon be on the job market” or “While I won’t be on the job market until X date, I’m doing some research.” Then, be clear about your request: “I wanted to know if you’d be willing to write me a short recommendation on LinkedIn about the work we did together planning the grad student conference in 2009” or “Because you know industry X well, I was wondering if I could take you out for a coffee, and we could spend about 15 minutes talking about some questions I have, before spending the rest of the time just catching up.” Keeping your requests specific and reasonable helps keep awkwardness to a minimum.
Renewing contact might still feel awkward. And some people may say no to your requests; that’s okay. If someone says no, let them know that you appreciate that they took the time to respond, and that you hope your paths will cross in the future. A classy response shows that you understood your request was indeed a request on your part, and not an obligation on theirs. And when someone does help, a thank you accomplishes the same thing.