“Networking? I hate networking.”
As a business owner, networking is key to my success and it's required me to overcome my discomfort when I hear the word. Here are some of the stories I've heard from my clients as well as some of my own about why we couldn’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t and won't network. Do any of these sound familiar?
- I’m an introvert.
- I’m not good with small talk.
- I’m fine, why do I need to meet new people.
- It’s just going to show everyone how awkward I am.
- What will I say?
- I have nothing to say.
- I feel like a phony.
- I’m not good at it.
- I don’t have time.
- Networking is awkward.
- I don't need to network.
- I'll embarrass myself.
When it comes to networking, there are good excuses available. Unfortunately, those excuses usually win out and we miss out on great connections and opportunities.
Networking is often talked about in the context of “making connections” or getting something. Especially for an introverted female, like me, the old paradigm of networking seems completely inauthentic. Knowing that networking is important in business and life, I've leaned into my fear and discomfort. I’ve learned to look at networking in a new light and I actually look forward to it now. In this series, I’ll share what’s helped me reframe networking, strategies and some practical tips that have helped me along the way.
In this, Part 1, I'll share ways you may need to change your stories about networking to give networking a try.
If you are like me and you hear the word networking, a little part of you cringes and you can feel the anxiety start. I get this funny picture in my head of a board room with mahogany wood paneling and people milling around in suits with business cards, awkwardly juggling a drink in one had with a small plate of food in the other. The room filled with the sounds of chit chat and fake laughter. Ok, I’m being dramatic to make a point. Networking has gotten a bad wrap.
- the action or process of interacting with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts
- the linking of computers to allow them to operate interactively
- a group or system of interconnected people or things
Traditionally networking is focused on exchanging information and making connections. I think for many of us, especially women, making connections with the intention of “exploiting” them for something doesn’t sit well with us. This is where women hold themselves back. If it's not genuine and authentic we don't want to do it.
Recently I’ve taken inspiration from sales coaches and have reframed networking as it’s base definition- connections and connecting. By removing the end goal, networking becomes about meeting new people. Besides the fact that I’m an introvert and meeting new people can be scary, this makes networking more approachable.
With the focus on connecting, attending events and reaching out to people has become more enjoyable. I’ve come to enjoy the variety of people I’ve met and the stories they have to tell. This uncovered another story that held me back, that I have to like everyone and that they have to like me. This isn't realistic or true.
When asked would I rather have lots of friends or a few close connections, I'd always choose the later. I want to go deep with people and get to know them. I simply can't do that with everyone. Realizing its not for forever has taken the pressure off me to connect with each person in depth and have the true intention of maintaining that connection. There is now a joy of connecting in the moment and hope that these acquaintances could one day be connections for myself and others. You never know!
It's not about me it's about them
One of the ways to quiet self-doubt and the Impostor Syndrome is to move the focus off ourselves and onto the other person. Focusing on the other person allows you to move from focusing on your doubt and anxiety to a place of curiosity outside of you. Instead of approaching a networking event about who you can meet, how many people you meet and what you get out of it; choose to focus on making genuine connections. Decide to make the conversation about discovery and curiosity. This is a place where introverts can shine. We are great at being curious, asking questions and genuinely listening.
Here are some of the questions I’ve had in my sub-conscious that’s helped to quiet anxiety.
1. How can I help?
2. How can I encourage them?
3. Who can I connect them to?
4. What value can I add to their life?
I'm not anxious, I'm excited
Besides replacing the word networking with connecting in my head there is another switch that I recommend. Instead of labeling the nervous energy and stress as anxiety, label it as excitement. So now when I feel anxiety before I send an email, take a call or go to an event I tell myself I’m excited. This one switch moves me from seeing a threat and certain death to looking for the opportunity and possibility.
Alison Wood Brooks a professor at Harvard researched the phenomenon to find that anxiety and excitement both have high arousal states and similar indications in our bodies, the difference is anxiety looked for threats and excitement looked for opportunities. If you want to learn more I recommend watching this 3-minute video on How to Turn Anxiety Into Excitement.
The reward is in the doing
Before gamification was a thing, I’d make goals for myself at networking events. For example, after I talk to 5 new people and then I could leave or I have to give my resume to 3 recruiters and that’s a success. The goals stretched me out of my comfort zone and provided the permission to leave. Honestly, I don't recommend it. It didn’t help. I still felt awkward and uncomfortable. It put my focus on the goal and pressured me into not being genuine.
Since those first days in college at job fairs, I've learned networking isn’t about the outcome. It’s not about the number of people I met, the cards I got or gave, or how many connections were actually made; it was about the process of taking a courageous step to take a risk and put myself out there. I began to focus on how these connection were in service to a larger goal in my life and I wasn't going to let that fear be bigger than my goal. I came to see that I could go to an event where I don’t know anyone or send a cold email, not get a response, and not die.
To be completely honest, about 15% of the time I don’t go to events on my calendar and that’s ok. I’ve given myself permission to only go when it feels genuine and authentic. There are some days I just don’t have the energy and can’t get over the hump. I found that making myself do anything, even hanging out with friends when I need time alone doesn’t work well. I go and have a terrible time. So sometimes give yourself some slack, say oh well, and try for next time. And maybe next time you invite a friend.
The other part of being authentic in connecting is giving yourself permission to be ok with who you do and don't meet. Some days you may meet a lot of interesting people and other days no one. It's all ok.
I recently went to a women’s entrepreneur lunch in Marin as I wanted to connect with other women business owners in my area. I met a variety of women that could be personal connections and some professional. More important than the connections, I was inspired by the stories in the room and the tenacity of the women I met.
Networking is a process of vulnerability
Let’s face it. Meeting new people is a risk, especially if you are learning to network. Each time you walk up to someone and introduce yourself or someone walks up to you, you don’t know what will happen. It can be awkward and uncomfortable.
You don’t need to feel 100% confident and comfortable to network. If like me, you are interested in becoming more comfortable at networking make and take small courageous steps of action. Start with identifying your goals in networking and what you’d like to offer others. Think about events you want to attend and make a commitment to go. If helpful, find easier events to attend. Each time is an opportunity to practice showing up and having a conversation. The more you have, the more comfort you will build. Allow yourself to make mistakes and feel awkward. You won’t die. You may even have fun!
Courage is more important than confidence
- a feeling of self-assurance arising from one's appreciation of one's own abilities or qualities
When you first start networking either at work or on your own, you won’t feel confident. Confidence is a feeling of assurance that comes from trusting in your own ability. If you’ve never networked it's understandable to have doubt and not feel confident.
We crave confidence! Confidence is alluring. We want to get to know "those" people. I want you to know you don't need to be confident to network. You do need curiosity and courage. Decide that in spite of your anxiety, which is now excitement, you want to go to an event or email someone. Wonder about other people and be curious about how you can add value to their life. You never know who you can connect someone with or a tip you could share that could help someone out, or even a smile that can brighten someone’s day.
Connecting aka “Networking” is an important skill for us to have, both for our careers and our personal lives. We are meant to be social creatures supporting one another. Don’t let fear, doubt or anxiety hold you back. Now that we’ve laid a new foundation for networking, next week in Part 2 of this series, I’ll share strategy and tactics for networking.
If you learned something new or have questions about networking please share in the comments or email firstname.lastname@example.org.