I recently had the honor of leading a team of professionals through a robust training on networking. I opened the class up with an anonymous survey asking the team how they feel about networking.
The vast majority of the answers were “meh”, “overwhelming”, “scary”, “icky”…and more. Only 2 of the bunch were positive, which if I’m being honest, I was kind of surprised that there were even 2 of them.
So why is networking so overwhelming?
Networking in the purest definition is the act of bringing people together for a common cause or exchange of information. That doesn’t sound so overwhelming, does it?
But yet most of us get anxiety or a knot in our stomach when we go to networking events – or avoid them entirely. There’s the fear of finding someone to talk to. The ever-lingering imposter syndrome telling us that we might say something silly or that we’ll be busted for not being as intellectual or put together as we think we should be. There’s the struggle with what to say when we introduce ourselves (aka the elevator pitch) or better yet, how to break into that circle of people to strike up a conversation.
And layer on top of that some interesting nuances between how men and women can typically engage in networking events – like the fact that women tend to want to have smaller, deeper networks so the idea of mingling with a crowd of strangers is the last thing that feels comfortable or normal. Or the fear around drinking too much (or others drinking too much) and there being some awkward or difficult situations.
And whether we are a man or a woman, there’s still the need to be on our A-game at a networking event as we want to make sure we make great connections that will either help our businesses or our job search, etc, etc, etc.
So, of course it’s overwhelming and riddled with emotions. Even for those who enjoy talking to strangers, it can still be a bag of discomfort.
But what is networking really?
Rather than networking being about bringing people together for the famous business card exchange, what if it was about making real connections and building relationships? We are created to be relational people after all, so why not make these connections really work for us? When we think about networking as relationship building, it changes the dynamics and the definition – and releases a lot of pressure on what these events really are.
And on top of that, what if networking wasn’t an event at all, but how we operate in our everyday life. What if networking happened around us all day every day? In the line at Starbucks? Or in the elevator? Or at a formal “networking event”? Or with our current customers? Or… The list goes on and on, but that shift of definition can change our thoughts, energy and actions around networking.
And a few more tips too…
And if that new definition isn’t enough to alleviate those butterflies, here are some tips that the experts say work – and I can personally vouch for too!
You’re not alone: everyone is in the same boat. The vast majority of people are feeling the same way you are and are working to manage their emotions and anxiety too. Rather than feel like you’re the one who is the odd man out, remind yourself that you’re not the only one to alleviate some of the pressure that you’re putting on yourself. Whether you’re feeling like an imposter or afraid of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, just know that we’re all human and are all perfectly imperfect.
It’s not about you: if you’re still feeling a little anxiety about how to introduce yourself or what to say, shift your thinking away from what you’re trying to accomplish and into what you can do for someone else. If you focus on how you can help, add value, or support someone else, there will be less fear and pressure on yourself to say or do the “right” thing.
Define success: before you get to the event, think about what your goals are for it. Is it collecting 5 business cards, or making 1 solid connection, or collecting feedback on an interesting topic you’ve been researching, etc? If you can have a goal, then you’ll be more focused on accomplishing that and less focused on your emotions going into it. It also gives you a great out once you’ve achieved your goal too!
Scan the room: if you’re struggling to figure out who to connect with, scan the room and find another person standing by themselves, or a small group with a physical opening. Make that an “in” for you and find yourself engaging with someone else in the same boat.
Build your confidence: scientifically speaking, acts of deep breathing, smiling or doing the infamous power pose (or super hero pose) will give you renewed energy and momentum going into the event – or even during the event. Do what you need to give yourself a little mojo and own that room.
Establish what works for you: and last, but not least, try different types of events (small, large, virtual, professional development based, social, etc.) and figure out what feels best for you. Focus on your strengths and your comfort and while continuing to push yourself to grow, make sure you’re optimizing what works for you personally to expand your network and grow.
So, what are you waiting for?
You’ve got this. Networking is extremely beneficial to both your personal and professional development. By having a solid network that you can tap into, you will be able to not only extend your own personal brand, but you’ll be able to grow, become a resource for others, seek support and mentorship from others, challenge your way of thinking and develop great relationships too.
Take a baby step today and find an event or person that you want to really connect with. Reach out or book the activity and give it a whirl. While it does take effort, having a solid network will pay dividends for your future.