Unless you’re an outstandingly garrulous person, who loves speaking to total strangers, networking can be draining and not fun. If you ever found yourself losing enthusiasm and coming up with excuses for skipping an event you thought would be great when you originally signed up for it, you know how this feels.
The self-talk sounds something like this: “I’m going to look like an idiot standing there by myself,” “I won’t know what to say, and I definitely won’t know how to get out of conversing with the boringest person in the room,” “No one gets business in one of those events anyway,” “I don’t have anything in common with anyone who’s likely to go,” and so on. All of these thoughts have one thing in common – you’re viewing yourself as the center of attention, on whom the spotlight is trained, and for whom this event is a minefield.
The pressure and anxiety can be high when you feel the need to shine in an environment where (a) you don’t know anyone; and (b) you don’t even know the definition of “shine” in this particular context.
But what if you look at a networking opportunity not as a buffet of possible faux pas and awkwardness on your part, but as a reconnaissance mission, instead? What if you don’t attempt to impress anyone, but all you do is find out if you’d like to meet any of the attendees again, or whether you’d like to join or become more involved with the organization putting on the event? How would it feel to walk into that room with the purpose of just asking people if they’ve been to these events before, and what they’ve gotten out of attending them?
There are two reasons why imagining the latter scenario ratchets down the anxiety. First, you’ve defined an achievable goal, and you know the steps to get there. Second, your goal is not about your performance. The focus is no longer on whether someone will like you or be impressed by you – the focus now shifts to the performance of others.
Because you’re no longer defining your experience by whether someone else approves of you, you have the freedom to judge the event by the criteria you yourself set. This way, even if the event turns out not to be all that, you’ll be able to analyze why it didn’t meet your expectations, and learn from your analysis.
So I hope that, with a new mindset and some goals, you’re going to give networking in person another chance. Oh – and here’s a tip on how to extricate yourself from a conversation: “I really enjoyed our talk, and would love to know more about _____, but I don’t want to keep you from mingling with other guests. May I have your card so we can keep in touch?”