Networking… excuse me as I hyperventilate for a minute before we get started.
The very word conjures up images of forced glad-handing, of awkward chit-chat, of getting out there and working the room—all the sorts of things that make introverts like me want to lock ourselves in the house.
It’s not that we are born wholly incapable of networking. Most introverts can easily behave like extroverts when we need to. (You know, of course, that personality traits exist on a continuum, so some introverts are more introverted than others.) I call this kind of socializing my dog-and-pony show. It wears us out, but we can do it.
It’s just that… bleah. It’s not our thing. Unless we can do it our way.
Introvert networking sounds like an oxymoron, but even the most introvertish introverts understand that meeting the right people is necessary for professional progress. And so we have to learn to do it in ways that not only take the torture out of it, but also help us succeed.
For example, I’m bad at cocktail parties where I don’t know people. I’ll talk to a few people, but after a drink and a little light conversation, I am so out of there—relieved, but also a little annoyed at myself for not meeting more people. Cocktail party small talk doesn’t come naturally to me, and if I’m not in the right state of mind, I can be awkward, which doesn’t do my professional reputation any good.
But you know what does come naturally to me? Sitting around a table, sharing a meal and conversation with a handful of people. This is a situation where I have time to relax, get a handle on everyone, and show my best self. Ergo, I avoid networking cocktail parties and attend networking luncheons and dinners. That’s my kind of networking.
Introverts also tend to be good with the written word, so we can really rock email when approaching new contacts or to follow up when we’ve met someone interesting. In fact, the Internet in general is introvert networking nirvana. Even if you don’t think Facebook and Twitter are fun and choose to avoid them in your personal life, these sites can be powerful professional networking tools when used thoughtfully. And, of course, LinkedIn is specifically designed for professional networking.
As with anything else, weighing your own personal strengths and weaknesses is important to success in networking. Each of us falls at a different place along the personality continuum, and introversion is only one aspect of the wonderful stew of traits that make us who we are. So while some introverts can swoop into a group and glad-hand like crazy for a short while, others wouldn’t go to a party even if their best friend was throwing it. To succeed at networking when you’d rather stay home requires some introspection first.
What types of interactions seem to pay off? Which don’t seem to be worth the effort? How long can you behave like an extrovert before you need a fainting couch and a cool drink? Have you learned how to manage your energy, to take short breaks in order to avoid depleting yourself in taxing situations?
Energy management is Job One for introverts, so learning your strengths and thresholds will help you decide when and how to network your best.
Then consider these tips for getting out there and mixing it up.
Do your homework.
Preparation is one of the introvert’s strengths. Before any event, “learn about the people you want to meet ahead of time,” says Jennifer Kahnweiler, Ph.D., author of Quiet Influence: The Introvert’s Guide to Making a Difference. “You can prepare questions like, ‘What are you working on right now?’ If you think about using your skill for depth over breadth, here’s a chance to really learn about somebody and have them learn about you.”
Plan to leave.
It’s a lot easier to attend events if you also give yourself permission to leave when you’ve had enough.
“Show your face,” says Nancy Ancowitz, author of Self-Promotion for Introverts: The Quiet Guide to Getting Ahead. “But the secret to socializing for introverts is doing so in doses. Plan on leaving after an hour—or well before you turn into a pumpkin.”
Remember that you want to shine at this event, and if you push past your point of energy depletion, you might not present your best self. A depleted introvert is often a cranky introvert.
Remember to breathe.
“This one I learned from watching my introverted dog, Ginger,” says career coach Beth Buelow, whose website is The Introvert Entrepreneur. “When she’s in a situation where she feels anxious or out of place, she engages in calming behaviors. She does a full-body shake, yawn or stretch. She might sniff the floor. These actions relax her and send signals to other dogs that she’s open to being approached.
“While I don’t suggest you do a head-to-toe shake or sniff the ground (or anything else, for that matter), there are calming behaviors humans can adopt. Before walking into the room, yawn. Roll your head around. Shake out your hands. Take several slow, deep breaths.” Repeat as necessary throughout the event (just not in the middle of the room where anyone can see you, of course).
Don’t judge small talk.
Lots of introverts consider small talk a waste of time because it seems shallow and superficial. And… well, yeah… it is. That’s what it’s meant to be: small.
Small talk is not conversation. It’s simply a point of connection between two human beings, and it’s the seed from which an in-depth conversation may grow. So don’t sweat sounding silly or judge others’ chitchat. “As starting points, think headline news items, human interest stories and pleasantries like weather,” Ancowitz says. Smile and look the other person in the eye. Ask questions. If a conversation doesn’t develop, move along. No harm, no foul. You have networked.
Oh, and remember that you are not obligated to talk to windbags. Because we are good listeners, introverts are at risk of being cornered by bores. If that happens to you, any excuse to escape is acceptable: refreshing your drink, greeting a friend, visiting the restroom.
Introverts tend to take in a lot of information when they are out and about—that’s why our brains get so tired. When you do start talking to someone, do your best to screen out everything else and concentrate on that one person, that one conversation. You’ll be amazed by how centered you will suddenly feel and how good it will make the other person feel to have your undistracted attention.
Get a business card.
Introverts send excellent follow-up emails, so be sure to get email addresses. After any interesting contact, offer your card and ask for one in return. Make a note on the back if you need to, reminding yourself of the person and conversation. And then be sure to follow up, and do it soon, while you’re still fresh in the person’s mind and the conversation is still fresh in yours. Then show your best stuff. “Through the writing process, you can flesh out ideas before you share them,” Kahnweiler says.
Explore networking groups.
If you think you might like to try a networking group, visit a few before you commit. “Talk to members to find out what they like most about the group,” Buelow says. “If you feel aligned with a group’s vitality and purpose, it won’t matter if there are five, 50 or 500 people in the group; that alignment will actually boost your energy, rather than drain it.”
Professional organizations can be easy networking for introverts because your common interest means the conversation is practically already underway—and chances are good that you know a little bit about other people in the group already.
Successful networking when you’re not the networking kind requires a combination of mindset and action. “It’s helpful to remember that networking is a learned skill,” says Buelow. “We introverts can forget that and think we’re either born with the gift of gab or not. Treat the process as you would anything new you wanted to become adept at: Watch others you admire. Find a mentor or networking partner. Accept that you’ll feel lots of discomfort alongside moments of ease. And practice, practice, practice.”
So take a deep breath and just do it. Networking is like exercising. Just think how relieved and satisfied you’ll feel when it’s all over.