WE ALL KNOW THAT CAREER AND BUSINESS SUCCESS STARTS WITH NETWORKING. BUT WHY ARE MANY OF US RELUCTANT TO PUT OURSELVES OUT THERE AND BUILD THE RELATIONSHIPS WE NEED TO ACHIEVE OUR GOALS?
It’s not because we don’t know how to network. We’ve all read articles and books about networking, and most people I’ve interviewed know the basics. Have a plan. Tell your story. Exchange contact information. Say thank you. Follow up a few days later. Those steps are easy. The real challenge for most of us is simply having the courage to walk up and introduce ourselves to people we don’t know.
Why are we reluctant to introduce ourselves to strangers?
Through my research I’ve found several reasons. Some of us are uncomfortable interrupting busy people or those already engaged in conversation. Others fear making a bad first impression. Some aren’t sure what to say, or how to keep the conversation going. And most of us fear rejection, and what we believe that says about our business abilities.
But most people I’ve interviewed find that when they have the courage to approach someone and introduce themselves, it almost always goes well. All those fears and anxieties are unwarranted. And yet it’s still hard the next time. Why?
We’re hardwired and taught to be anxious around strangers.
Part of the reason is that for much of human history meeting strangers was a rare and dangerous thing, and there was a survival advantage to be wary of unfamiliar people. We’ve evolved to have an instinctive fear of strangers. We’re also taught by parents and teachers from a young age “Don’t Talk to Strangers” which only reinforces that natural anxiety.
Furthermore, while most cultures have extensive etiquette rules about how to introduce other people, there are almost no clear etiquette rules for introducing ourselves. The resulting social uncertainty only makes it harder.
How can we become more confident and comfortable networkers?
Fortunately, I’ve met many people (even the shy and introverted) who have overcome these anxieties to become skilled networkers. Based on their success, here is some advice:
1. Accept the fear as normal. Recognize we’re hardwired and taught to see more social risk than there really is. Realize that others around you are probably just as nervous as you are.
2. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If the roles were reversed and you were being approached, how would you feel? If you’d be open to it, than assume they’d be comfortable with it too and go for it.
3. Focus on being friendly, humble, and a good listener. Good impressions are less about what you say about yourself, and more about how you make the other person feel.
4. See it as a numbers game. It’s inevitable you’ll have some awkward or unproductive conversations. Push past them and keep networking, and the significance (and memory) of those less-than-successful interactions will fade.
5. Approach networking as a learning opportunity instead of a performance test. You’ll feel more relaxed, ask better questions, and build better relationships.
Ultimately, a little anxiety while networking is probably good, as it keeps you focused and alert. But too much can turn networking into an energy-draining experience that you avoid and regret later. Understand your anxiety, accept it, find and make eye contact with a friendly face, and go introduce yourself.