Q: Ok. I don’t like talking to people. I’m nervous and reserved and I hate small talk. It feels like superficial fake unnecessary conversation. And I have nothing to network with – to offer others. I know establishing relationships is necessary but I feel awkward doing so. How do I effectively do it?
A: What a great question Letitia! I’m willing to bet that several of our readers are on the edge of their seats waiting for the response to this one. Judging by your very strong feelings against small talk, I’m going to guess that you’re an introvert. You are not alone. Statistics suggest that an estimated 50.7% of the population is as well. I hope that you take comfort in this fact, because it means that about half of the people you could possibly connect with have the same feelings you do about interacting with strangers in an environment where one is expected to engage in networking activities.
Let’s start by getting some perspective on what networking is. Google defines networking simply as interacting with other people to exchange information and develop contacts, especially to further one’s career. The methods for who, what, where, when, and how you interact with others are unlimited, so try not to restrict your thoughts to navigating a room of 50 or more intimidating people in suits, balancing a glass of wine and a stack of business cards, while pretend-chuckling in unison with strangers at unfunny comments. It doesn’t have to be that way.
As a matter of fact, the way to be successful in networking is to discontinue any practices you may have adopted that force you to be something that you’re not – like, say, an extrovert. Be yourself. Your networking experiences will be most meaningful and effective if they’re authentic. So, find what works for you and WORK IT!
Take a page from the networking marketers and work your “warm market.” Start with your mentors, family, friends, and colleagues. If you’re anything like me, there are several people in this segment of your life who have no idea what you do and you really aren’t sure what they do either. Allow the familiarity you have with them to be the launching pad to a conversation. Ask them, “what do you do now,” for example. And since constant conversation is not the introvert’s “thing,” try creating/finding activities or activity-based outings and events to participate in as you talk with the people you select – like jogging or sports or movies or dining.
Think about the groups that you participate in at work and in your community (places you volunteer, church, local meet up groups). Start building relationships there. If you aren’t in any groups, start researching the clubs, groups, and associations at work, or related to your job, that have activities that might interest you. Check meetup.com, Facebook, the local paper, and other social outlets for groups that match your interests outside the workplace. Author Lisa Evans suggests, “A community garden, for example, can provide an introvert with the opportunity to become part of a community without having to change their personality.” She goes on to say that “what community groups offer is a chance to be with other people and … learn new things and have fun in ways that aren’t socially demanding.”
Begin with the end in mind. Give yourself a goal, then make it your mission. This makes your conversation purposeful. If your goal in initiating a conversation with a stranger is to find out where the bathroom is, you decide that up front, you approach, and before you leave them, you know. It’s as simple as that. Maybe you want to learn more about the company where the person works. Maybe you want to find out if a company is hiring and what their hiring process is like. Perhaps you are interested in gathering intel about a decision maker in advance of an interview. Maybe you want to learn the steps you need to take to reach a personal or professional goal. Starting with a clear vision for your networking activities will help you avoid the feeling that you are just having unnecessary conversations.
You can network ANYWHERE! While face-to-face networking events are typically formal events hosted by companies and organizations at colleges, hotels, restaurants, etc., you can network at the grocery store, the bank, the library, and even online. Become a regular somewhere, as people start to expect you, the conversations and connections will evolve. The number one prerequisite here is that you are someone where YOU feel comfortable.
Know yourself. Network, however you choose to do it, when you are at your best. If you know that you are a wreck in the morning, that coffee mixer might not be such a great idea. If you tend to get a bit too happy during happy hour, maybe you ought to skip drinks with the company execs. Your health, mental state, how you are feeling about your appearance at the time, if you are hungry, etc., all of these things tend to come out when you are engaging with others. Sometimes, they come out in the form of complaints. Other times, there are physical manifestations that can’t be helped (coughing, sneezing, running to restroom, etc.). If you are at your best, you will be more relaxed and confident as you engage with others.
Take it one step at a time. Begin with a goal and make it your mission to achieve that mission before you’re done. Be prepared to talk about yourself. Think about what you want to say, write it down before hand and practice it in the mirror if you need to so that you can talk in your natural style of conversation. Write out some questions to ask the people you encounter, in the event that you get stuck. Arrive early to avoid walking into crowds. Since you are better one-on-one, make it your goal to try to catch people who are alone instead of waiting to arrive at a time when people will be bunched or packed together in small groups. If you are feeling stuck, introduce the person you just met to someone new and listen as the two of them engage or excuse yourself to continue mingling. If possible, network with a friend.
Check your body language Make sure you are feeling well and comfortable with your environment, your outfit, etc. before you approach others or before they approach you. If it makes you feel more in your element, hold something in your hand (a pen, your cell phone, a scarf). Allow yourself to be temporarily distracted if it gives you fuel to continue the event. You may also consider giving yourself a time limit to be at the event or activity so that you can reduce any anxiety. If this is not appropriate, permit yourself to take frequent breaks outside or in another area for the same purposes.
Use technology to your advantage. Making connections with people online first will do wonders to break the ice before you meet face-to-face. Use the Internet to do research on the people who are likely to be attending the gathering you are going to and find some common ground for your discussion.
Lastly, get your head together. Be positive. Be in the moment. Be yourself.
Evans, Lisa “How Introverts Can Network Without Changing their Personalities” http://www.fastcompany.com/3044860/work-smart/how-introverts-can-network-without-changing-their-personalities
Clark, Dorie “Networking for Introverts”
Florentine, Sharon “9 networking tips for introverts”
Campbell, Rebekah “An Introvert’s Guide to Networking”
Johnson, Cynthia “How to Network When You’re An Introvert”
Gardella, Adriana “Networking Tips for Introverts”
Ayres, Andrea “A Guide to networking for people who suck at networking”
“How to Network if You’re an Introvert (wikiHow)”