“I’m rubbish at networking.” “Networking fills me with dread.” “I’d rather eat my own arm than go to a networking event on my own.” “When it gets to the part of the agenda that says ‘networking’ I just go and sit on the loo and read Twitter.”
I have literally said all of these things. I’d also love to say that I’ve never gone to the loo when the ‘networking’ session started, even when I didn’t need a wee… But I can’t.
Wherever you are on the introvert-extrovert scale, a networking ‘opportunity’ can feel as appetising as cold, congealed gravy.
If that doesn’t describe you, congratulations! You are very special, and there’s only one thing you need to know: you have the power to make another person’s day. It’s not going to cost you anything to make others feel welcome and at ease come mingling time, because you are lucky enough to feel at ease yourself. Many people feel terrified, even if their calm appearance suggests otherwise. It is costing them a lot to approach a group of people they’ve never met before, and even more to join in.
I am one of these nervous people. Before each networking event I attend, these are the things I believe will happen to me:
– Nobody will let me join in their conversation.
– If someone does let me join the conversation, I will tell someone what I do and they will ask me to leave because it isn’t important enough.
– I will say something wrong and something bad will happen.
– I will be judged because I have bad hair, however fine it is when I leave the house in the morning.
It is safe to say that none of these things have never happened. It is also safe to say that I continue to have these feelings before any event where I may not know people in the coffee break. However, I should say that I did once hand around the roving microphone at a senior leadership conference with the zip on the back of my dress showing more than it should, so it’s not all roses…
The problem with networking is not you.
The problem with networking is that it sounds like a GCSE IT module and not an experience.
Other people are not pairable devices. Your compatibility isn’t measured by whether your system can run the latest iOS, or whether you’ve got the right app installed.
We are all humans in the room, and there is no code that says you do or do not get to enjoy playing this game.
Because we are humans and not devices, we connect through our stories and shared experiences. We respond to a smile and the invitation to share our view on how we are experiencing the quality of coffee and/or choice of pastries on offer. And what is brilliant is that everyone in the room has an equal chance to do this.
This presents a problem for those of us looking for excuses to get out of our next networking moment.
The ‘other people’ that in my nightmares shut me out, question my credibility and judge my hair become real people with a shared interest (assuming we are all at the right event!). So in order to have a bad time, they’d have to be bad people.
If I can find the courage to ask someone how they are finding the coffee, listen carefully to their answer, and share my own opinion of it, I am well on the way to establishing a connection. (Sidebar tip for nerves: know what you will say if someone asks what you do. It’s your elevator pitch and it’s short not because the other person is important but so it’s easy for you to remember! A little bit of preparation is all that’s needed.)
After that, it’s all down to chemistry and willingness to help each other out. There are three questions to ask. One: Can I learn from this person? Two: Are they receptive to what I’m sharing with them? Three: Could they learn from me too? (Four: Did I choose the best pastry?)
I don’t think “being present with a friendly stranger” is much less daunting than “networking”. But I’d rather plot to take down a fear I understand than one I don’t.
Claire Eadington geeks out on workflow management, performance and wellbeing. Claire’s TEDx talk about barriers to performance for exceptional women kicked off the 2017 TEDxWhitehallWomen event in London.
Claire writes a weekly blog, Self Curious, on NPW’s website.
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