If there’s one word in the work world that makes introverts cringe most, it’s probably “networking.” Though some find the task of talking to new people for career purposes to be enjoyable and enlightening, for others, it’s a major source of stress and anxiety. On the one hand, they know it’s something they should be doing to help themselves get ahead, and on the other, they can’t think of anything they’d like to do less than talk to complete strangers. The benefits of networking are well-documented: mentorship relationships, finding out about new job leads, and developing new client prospects. At the same time, even the most profound benefits are not always enough to get introverts onboard.
Here’s the good news: Not everyone networks the same. So if your first reaction to the idea of going to a business “mixer” is a feeling of dread, try out these tricks for making it more bearable.
1. Change how you think about networking
“Networking is a word that can cause stress for both extroverts and introverts alike, as it usually conjures up an evening of walking around with a glass in your hand, awkwardly attempting to talk to strangers,” explains Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership and author of Ladder Down: Success Strategies For Lawyers From Women Who Will Be Hiring, Reviewing and Promoting You. But it doesn’t have to be like that. “It is far more helpful to think of networking as the art of building relationships over time,” she notes. Think about it. Any time you’ve derived some benefit from networking—a new job, client, or contract—it was most likely from a relationship that you cultivated for awhile. Though sometimes people are able to translate brand new connections into business results, it’s much more common to get them from long-standing relationships.
“Success in the business world can be significantly impacted by one's ability to form and maintain relationships,” continues Rikleen.”Decades of research demonstrate that we tend to mentor and promote people with whom we have formed positive relationships. Relationships also provide a source of advice and support in navigating a job search or any other life change. The more broadly we think about what it means to build relationships effectively, the more likely we are to find ways to meet new people in a way that best fits our personality.” So instead of forcing yourself to go to a huge conference to make new connections, ask someone out for coffee or lunch if that’s an environment that makes you more comfortable. Plus, you’ll be better able to have a meaningful conversation in a more private setting.
2. Manage your expectations.
The aim of networking is to meet people you connect with. Sure, there might be some people who hit it off with everyone they meet, but that’s not the case for most—even extroverts. “Be realistic,” says Leila Bulling Towne, founder of the Bulling Towne Group, an executive coaching and leadership facilitation practice. “You will meet many people with whom you will not generate genuine rapport. That is okay,” she adds. “A reasonable goal is to find a few new people to learn more about, not to gain multiple new friends or LinkedIn connections.” Just remind yourself that networking is about quality, not quantity, so if you meet one or two new people every quarter who you are able to develop relationships with, that’s a win.
You know what they say: Practice makes perfect. When it comes to networking, especially at a big event or conference if you decide to go that route, preparing ahead of time can help you (at least in part) deal with your nerves. “Always have a strategy and set goals ahead of time,” suggest Stephanie Abrams Cartin and Courtney Spritzer, the co-founders of Socialfly, a social media marketing and influencer agency. “More than anything it is important to know the audience you are addressing and your personal brand. Create an elevator pitch that reflects your strengths but shows your personality.” If it helps you feel prepared, research other event attendees beforehand so you know who you want to talk to and why. Think of how you’ll introduce yourself to them as well as some questions you’d want to ask them. Then, when you walk into a room filled with people, you’ll hopefully feel less overwhelmed because you have some specific goals in mind for the session.
4. If rehearsing feels weird, try something different.
While having an elevator pitch is a great strategy for many people, it doesn’t work for everyone. If you try creating one and practicing and it just feels wrong, don’t force it. “I am a firm believer in giving yourself pep talks, not practice speeches,” says Jaclyn Johnson, founder of Create & Cultivate, an online platform and offline conference for women looking to create and cultivate the career of their dreams. “People vibe with and trust authenticity. Trust between you and a client or you and a potential partner is paramount,” she explains. In other words, if you don’t feel like you’re being yourself, you won’t get very far. And for those who aren’t comfortable “being themselves” in a public setting, emphasize your job function.“If you’re going to learn one thing before a networking opportunity, learn your business. Know your business and your job inside out. Pitch that. Don’t pitch you.”
5. Use social media to your advantage.
One of the best potential takeaways from networking is a mentoring relationship. For people who don’t love talking to strangers, though, taking that first step to getting close enough with someone to develop that kind of conncection can be tough. While social media presents its own unique challenges in the business world, it also provides ample opportunity to research and connect with new people, all without actually going to a networking event. “Individuals, brands, and businesses are utilizing social media to share advice and show an inside look at their culture and values. Once you find a mentor or company you admire, do your research on their brand and get creative with how you reach out to them,” suggest the founders of Socialfly. Then, figure out how you can make a connection in person. For example, “if you find an event where your potential mentor will be speaking, prepare thoughtful questions that will not only give you helpful insight but also challenge and excite them. This tactic will help you make a lasting impression and stand out from the competition.”
6. Don’t do things you hate.
You know yourself better than anyone else, which means you know which environments you’ll be comfortable in and which ones you won’t. “A fundamentally important aspect of networking is to be authentic. And you can only be authentic if you are able to be comfortable and engage with people as yourself,” says Rikleen. If you’re not comfortable, you can’t be yourself. “Whether an introvert or an extrovert, if you do not bring your authentic self to an opportunity to meet people, you will invariably resent the experience, which will impact your ability to form new relationships.” Basically, don’t do something you know is going to keep you from feeling at ease. “If you are an introvert who does not enjoy noisy venues and loud music, it's perfectly okay to take a pass on the event at a bar and, instead, sign up for the charity dinner or community service day,” she explains. “If you are doing an activity you enjoy, it will be much easier to talk to people you have never met and you will find that strangers will more easily become colleagues.”
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