Dread Networking? How to Make it More Enjoyable
Alicia knows that if she wants to grow her business, she needs to expand her network. Yet, at most networking events, she finds herself standing by herself in a sea of strangers or scrolling through her phone to avoid eye contact. She usually is quite friendly and outgoing with friends and colleagues, so why does the thought of networking make her feel so awkward and uncomfortable?
Do you shudder at the thought of attending networking events? Many of us do. Surprisingly, even the most extroverted among us experience some social anxiety around networking. It’s not that we lack social skills. Our inner critic is just telling us that the social situation feels dangerous.
Feels dangerous? Networking can make us feel vulnerable to the criticism and judgment of others because we think our intelligence and social skills are on display. Social anxiety thrives on perfectionism. We see ourselves as performing and worry that how we act or what we say will reveal our flaws, awkwardness, and anxiety.
Similar to the concept of impostor syndrome, rather than exposing ourselves as “not good enough,” we avoid social situations like networking that could reveal our shortcomings. The irony is, the more we avoid, the more anxious we feel.
Yet, the inability to establish a broad and diverse network can ultimately hold you back in your career.
Networking is essential for business development, and it can broaden your access to new career opportunities.
For example, if you are looking for a new job, it’s all about who you know and who knows you. Networking with individuals beyond your immediate social circle is crucial to connecting you with the people who can help elevate your career.
How to Take the Dread Out of Networking
If the thought of attending a networking event makes you feel less than enthused, here are five ways to make it feel more enjoyable:
1. Come Up with a Game Plan
We tend to be more confident in social situations when we know what to expect ahead of time. It's when things are less predictable, like networking events, many of us feel unmoored. This is because of our fear of the unknown. The thought of making a good impression with people we don’t know can feel very overwhelming! Yet, having a game plan can help eliminate that fear.
Establishing an overall objective before your next networking event can make it feel more impactful and less anxiety-producing. Think about what you hope to accomplish by the end of the event? Is it to catch up with colleagues or connect with potential clients? To learn more about the host or sponsoring organization? To practice your elevator speech?
When I work with clients on helping to improve their networking skills, I encourage them to establish at least three goals before leaving the event. An example might be introducing yourself to three new people or scheduling a follow-up conversation with at least one potential new client. It's also a good idea to prepare a few conversation starters or talking points to fall back on if there's a lag in the discussion.
Doing a little homework before the event can help you feel more confident and in control. Try to learn as much as possible about the potential attendees. Consider connecting with them beforehand through professional networking sites like LinkedIn. This can help eliminate any initial awkwardness and ensure you maximize your time by connecting with individuals best aligned with your goals.
2. See Yourself as Others Do
During a recent conversation with a new client, she apologized for coming across as “flaky" when we met previously at a networking event. She thought that I could read her mind and see how awkward and out of place she felt. I hadn’t noticed at all. Instead, I found her to be thoughtful and engaging.
When we feel nervous, we often think it’s apparent to everyone in the room. We worry that our awkwardness and anxiety are observable to others and they will judge us harshly, “Oh, wow, she’s acting weird!” While you may feel overrun by negative emotions, others probably aren’t picking up on this. They are likely more focused on themselves and the impression they are making with you!
To see yourself as others do, have someone privately videotape you in a social situation that makes you feel awkward. If you can observe yourself objectively, chances are you won't detect when you feel uncomfortable. I’ve witnessed this myself and have been pleasantly surprised to find that I don’t look nearly as anxious as I felt at the time.
3. Shift Your Focus Inside-Out
Have you ever been in a conversation where the other person didn't seem to be listening to you? Not a great way to build rapport! However, in social situations like networking, we often become distracted by our own inner dialogue rather than the person in front of us. We aren’t actively engaged in the conversation because we are more concerned with minimizing mistakes and not sounding stupid.
If you catch yourself overthinking or planning what you want to say next, stop and refocus your attention on what the person in front of you is saying. It's normal to get caught up in your own thoughts, especially as your inner critic tries to take over. Yet your ability to stay present and listen deeply to others is the key to establishing more authentic connections. You don't have to be a social butterfly. Just remain curious, and the conversation will naturally flow.
4. Have a Good Elevator Speech
When introducing yourself at a networking event, do you find yourself robotically reciting your name, position, and the company where you work? If you tend to default to this standard (and boring) narrative, you might be missing a significant opportunity to differentiate yourself and make a lasting impression.
A good elevator speech (aka elevator pitch) is a form of personal branding that allows you to quickly and effectively introduce yourself to others. As its name implies, an elevator speech should be short and to the point. It should provide a sense of who you are, what you do, and what value you provide (or position you are looking for if you are job hunting). Here's an example of mine:
Hi, my name is Jill, and I'm an executive coach and career development consultant for women attorneys and leaders. I have a particular passion for working with Latina lawyers based on over a decade of research and experience on how they may be inadvertently holding themselves back. I help empower them to "get out of their own way" to realize their full power and potential.
5. Choose Courage Over Comfort
Most people feel some discomfort at networking events. I’m no exception. However, I’ve become quite adept at navigating a crowded room. It’s not that I don’t feel anxious at times. I’ve just had a lot of practice choosing courage over comfort.
One of the reasons we feel social anxiety around networking is because we’ve made a habit of dodging uncomfortable situations. Doing so prevents us from realizing it’s not so bad and we won't fall on our face. Who knows, we might even enjoy it!
Courage isn't the absence of fear. It's our willingness to move forward, despite the fear.
Sure, you might feel a bit uneasy the first couple of times you try out your elevator speech or attempt to join a group conversation. But do it anyway. Ask yourself, “What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?” When you stick it out rather than give in to your urge to sneak out the back door, you rewire your brain. Over time, this builds confidence in yourself and your networking abilities.
Do You Want Networking to Feel More Enjoyable?
Do you dislike or avoid networking events because they make you feel uncomfortable? If so, you’re likely hurting your career.
You don’t need better social skills, just a healthy dose of self-acceptance! This simple mindset shift will help you tame your inner critic and feel more confident and secure.
Do you want to be a better networker? If so, please reach out to me to learn how I can help. You are also welcome to schedule a 30-min consultation call with me to learn how coaching can help you "get out of your own way" so you can achieve your goals and realize your full potential.
Jill Lynch Cruz, PhD, PCC, GCDF, SPHR
Executive Coach & Career Development Facilitator
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