“Yes, yes you do have to network.” As a Stress Management Coach and Training Director I spend a good deal of time describing to others how important maintaining a web of support is. It reduces stress, builds resiliency and can help you both personally and professionally. So why for so long was my first thought always, “Ugh, do I have to?” Over time I learned to appreciate how networking is wrapped into social and emotional intelligence and how they, in turn, are very important to our overall success. I knew I needed to change my response, mainly the one in my head, and figure out how to step outside my comfort zone.
INTROVERT or EXTROVERT?
Last year I picked up some recommended books on the subject of networking and started signing myself up for events to practice my new mindset towards networking. I learned some valuable lessons over time that are worth sharing. The first lesson is that you must get to know yourself to become a successful networker. This self awareness is especially true in terms of your introvert versus extrovert characteristics. I completed a test from the book Networking for People Who Hate Networking by Devora Zack. I was not surprised to find out that I am an introvert, although I do have some extrovert tendencies (unfortunately not the one that makes you love networking). Extroverts really don’t seem to have a problem with networking. It is their nature to talk to stimulate thinking. They thrive on being around people and are very comfortable being part of discussions. Introverts, on the other hand, need to think before they talk. They need to process information before sharing and this can be tricky in a networking setting.
Networking events come in many different flavors. A small training workshop can be considered a networking event; so can taking a class at the local college as well as the common practice of schmoozing over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres without any substantive educational content The key is to know yourself and whenever possible choose events that work toward your success. Introverts should look for opportunities that have a clear format and include a set program. This is because they can better plan for the occasion.
That brings me to planning. I learned how important it is to prepare for networking. Be ready to talk about yourself (have that elevator speech handy), listen actively, remember names and look interested. The good part is that you can practice all of these ahead of time. Additionally, prepare by having some opening questions like “What kind of work do you do? What brought you to this event? Have you taken a class here before?” Don’t wait until you are standing in a roomful of strangers to come up with them. Planning and preparation will take you further.
As part of that planning, you should set some goals (and rewards) for yourself. I learned that successful networking is not dictated by the number of contacts you make. Instead, it can be measured by achieving the goals you have set for yourself. Perhaps there is a specific person you would like to meet or information you hope to gather. Stepping away from this quantitative measure allows you to focus on speaking to the appropriate people without feeling that you are missing out for not casting a wider net. Another tip to help create ease is to volunteer. I offered to be on the planning committee for one event and it made me feel more comfortable as I had a role to play. I also highly recommend taking breaks during the event. It helps to take a few moments to begin to process new information and you can do so by taking a short walk or stepping aside under the guise of checking messages. No reason to feel guilty; you’ve heightened your self-awareness and self-management.
So, what happens if you’re doing all these things and still find yourself standing there totally blank? Well, all you have to do is smile. It is the strongest, most versatile networking technique out there. Even if it is forced initially, your body will respond in the positive and your mind will begin to also. Smile and let that new connection start the conversation for you. I just bet you will find a way to enjoy yourself!