Networking for introverts and social overthinkers
Whether you are an introvert or a social overthinker, the thought of networking can be very daunting. Being surrounded by strangers, making small talk and putting yourself out there can be exhausting and overwhelming. Although networking is important for professional development, personally I have avoided it for years as it gave me a lot of anxiety before, during and after the event. Enough anxiety to make up excuses and find ways not to attend certain activities due to discomfort that interacting with strangers gave me. And I am not talking about a mild discomfort, I will be honest here and admit that I have suffered from panic attacks in public settings where I found refuge in the bathroom to calm myself down or where I simply left without telling anyone.
It is embarrassing to be uncomfortable with strangers to the extent that it might trigger a panic attack. It is embarrassing to tell people that networking can give me anxiety. Therefore for the longest time, I didn’t tell anyone as I didn’t want to appear weak, complicated, high maintenance, weird or unfit for the corporate world.
What is networking: Networking is building and maintaining professional relationships. It involves connecting with people in your industry or profession or company who can help you achieve your career goals. Networking is not just about getting your next position, it’s about creating a network of people who can offer support, guidance and opportunities throughout your career.
As my career progressed, it became clear to me that with the ambitions I have, I would have to find a way to make networking possible for me. If not, my anxieties would get in the way of my ambitions and I am too stubborn to let that happen. Therefore, through some trial and errors and a few panic attacks in between, I have found ways to network that are comfortable for me. I share these with all of you in hope that others, who suffer like I did, can find a way forward so that networking doesn’t get in the way of their ambitions.
Networking events - Stalking attendees and conversations starters I don’t enjoy attending a large event where I don’t know anyone. I’ve done it enough times to know that it makes me anxious and I don’t get anything out of it except anxiety and exhaustion. Therefore, when I attend events, I always come prepared. I prepare in two different ways. First, I try to know who will attend and I google the attendees to know who they are and identify who I want to talk to and for what purpose. In other words, I stalked people online (isn’t that what the internet is for anyway? 😉). Secondly, for some selected people, I prepare some conversation starters usually relating to them to entice them into a one-on-one conversation they will find meaningful. People like to be heard and seen, so engaging with strangers to talk about them always makes them more open and willing to interact. By preparing in this way, I also control my anxiety because preparation is a great numbing agent for my anxiousness.
Networking events: Linking up with strangers before the event In addition to stalking attendees and preparing conversation starters, I have taken the habit of asking organizers for the list of attendees so that I can connect with many of them on Linkedin. I go one step further, I also message them to introduce myself and I also engage with a few on key topics I’d like to discuss to make the small talk easier and more engaging. This way, when I get there, I already know a few people and the room is not only filled with strangers.
Networking doesn’t have to mean attending large events. Although we usually think of large events when we think of networking, there are many ways to network. Networking doesn’t only happen in a large room full of strangers. Actually, most valuable connections are made in smaller and more intimate settings. This is my preferred way to network, both within the company I work for and externally. I schedule one-on-one meetings with people and engage alone with them. This might not sound like networking, but it is. Through this effort I expand my network in a way that is comfortable to me and that doesn’t give me too much anxiety.
Networking is a two-way street Although I still struggle with this one, I make a conscious effort to remind myself that networking is a two-way street. It’s not just about making connections, but also about what I can offer. Being a good listener and offering advice is also important when we network. Therefore, I make an extra effort to remind myself of the value I can bring to others and have it ready on offer. Approaching networking with the mindset of giving rather than receiving helps me be a little more grounded in my interactions (although it requires me to boost my self confidence momentarily).
Authenticity: I am me and I tell people networking doesn’t come naturally to me When I first started to try to network, I tried to be someone I wasn’t. I am still not sure who that was, but I tried to be overly serious in a way that was completely unauthentic. I pretended to be this networking persona and it made me overthink everything. Now, when I network, I am me. I even tell people that I find networking hard and that this doesn’t come naturally to me. Surprisingly (or not), people open up and tell me they feel the same and we bond over our mutual discomfort. Being authentic is so much easier and so much less nerve wracking than pretending to be someone else.
Taking breaks Although I have become better at networking, I take breaks. I will excuse myself to the bathroom now and again and spend easily 5-10 min away from everyone simply to get grounded again.
Embracing curiosity To shift my mindset and stop being overly anxious, I have found that being curious helps me feel that engaging with others is acceptable and legitimate. By reminding myself that I am engaging out of curiosity, I leave some of my anxiety behind and find myself feeling less evaluated by others. This has allowed me to be more open-minded and way less focus on myself as I shift my focus to others.
To conclude, I’d like to remind myself and anyone reading this that we are all unique and all have unique perspectives and a unique personality. Both of which are of value and strangers, in networking activities, can find our perspective and personality of interest. It’s important to remember that we all have something to offer to others and to own it when we engage with new people.