So, I wouldn’t describe myself as Introvert necessarily, but I happily admit that I have never walked through the doors of a networking event without first mentally opening a rolodex of all the reasons why I shouldn’t go. “I think I am too tired”. “It will throw off my schedule”. “It’s too damned windy out, better go home”. “Dammit. Forgot my pen. Gotta go”… literally. Welcome to the mental anguish as I search for all the reasons why I should avoid the uncomfortable scenario of a room full of strangers, turn on my stiletto heels, and get the hell out of there.
And when I do make it through the doors? What happens then? You guessed it. I make a bee line for the bathrooms, where I will happily waste time washing my hands as though I was preparing for surgery, just so I can avoid those looming introductions. If that doesn’t kill enough time I will expertly find a snug, dark corner of the room where I can be enveloped by the light of my phone screen and there I stay. Not making eye contact. Until we are called into the talk / seminar / lecture etc.
Favouring the digital
This was newly-formed behaviour for me. I used to be far more out-going and enthusiastic about the possibility of making new connections. I also used to prefer speaking on the phone as a way of doing business, but I have noticed the silent creep of email as the default means for contact. I genuinely believe a general switch in our societal behaviour towards favouring digital is contributing to an increased sense of discomfort with “traditional” forms of communication; as well as a sense of security in never having to participate in those spaces if you don’t want to. I mean, think about it; for many people, if you don’t want to speak to someone all day long, you probably don’t have to. We have established complex ways of ensuring we can protect ourselves from true, meaningful communication if we want to. And what is the result? A deepening, gradually-increasing acceptance that social anxiety is inevitable and there is nothing that can be done to help…and that all networking events are to be avoided at all costs.
Wrong. Dead Wrong.
Avoidance of social situations will exacerbate the issue and could contribute to longer-term issues with communication, not to mention have a cumulative negative impact on your self-esteem. Avoidance can take the form of complete absence from events altogether, or it could be simply (like me) staring at your phone in the desperate hope that no one speaks to you.
A battle cry for social snowflakes.
I believe that challenging this thought process is the best way for us social snowflakes to grow out of our old habits. And I know what you’re thinking, your hands are getting clammy at the thoughts of such social unpredictability. At these events our heads are on fire with all the possible scenarios, questions, jokes, awkward silences, inquisitions blah blah blah that could possibly crop up, right? Well, none of that matters because all you have to do is one thing. And it’s easy.
Start with Hello.
Think about it. What is going to happen when you walk over to someone and simply say Hello? Are they going to stare you up and down and say nothing? Are they going to ask for a copy of your credentials and give you a job interview before committing to the conversation? No. They are going to extend a handshake and say “hello” right back to you. Before you know it, you will have started a conversation and you won’t have lost any limbs or started any fires. It will be wonderful. If you’re not too hot on small talk and awkward silences are what scare you most, then make sure you are saying “hello” to a group. This way there will be others around to fill the gaps in conversation. Trust me though…networkers don’t leave many gaps in conversation. More than often you’ll have to fight to get a word in edge ways.
Equiping yourself for battle:
As well as being armed with this one, little word (hello) there are some practical ways that you can ensure you are fully equipped for battle in even the most hostile networking arena:
- Ask for a copy of the guestlist in advance.
This way you can see if you will have any familiar faces at the event.
- Request an introduction.
Terrifying, I know, but you can ask the organiser to specifically introduce you to a particular attendee. This will give you time to consider things you would like to talk to them about, specific questions etc.
- Get the event timings.
If you know the timings of the event in advance you can challenge yourself to arrive just 10 minutes early so you only have to face 10 minutes of stranger danger.
- Listen & ask questions.
Everyone loves to talk about themselves and if you are genuinely interested and asking questions, there shouldn’t be any lull.
- Forgive yourself for awkwardness.
You aren’t Tony Robbins, so why kick yourself for not being a whizz at every single conversation?! Just move on. No big deal.
- Most people hate this.
There is some comfort in remembering that you aren’t alone. A lot of people hate this stuff. I would go so far as to say that most people are somewhat uncomfortable so a lot of folks will be extremely glad someone had the guts to break the ice so they don’t have to.
- Don’t forget the benefits.
You could walk away with a solution to a problem, a contact, a connection, an insight, shared knowledge or an opportunity. It might just be worth it!
Consider it like ripping off a band-aid…it will get easier! The anxiety lives in your head, and by challenging yourself to step outside your comfort zone it will get easier. Trust me. If you approach it like learning a new skill you may one day even learn to enjoy it.