By Ms. JD Editor • May 26, 2011•Careers
Every evening before bed, you glance at your iPhone’s calendar to see what tomorrow brings. Hoping for a calm, relaxing evening watching your favorite reality shows and sipping wine on the couch, you’re dismayed when you see in bright red text: “Networking Mixer, 7:30.” With a groan, you wonder what could’ve possibly possessed you to be so ambitious. You begin frantically running through excuses in your mind because, at the moment, nothing sounds more unappealing than to spend your limited free time having superficial conversations with total strangers and noshing on mediocre hors d’oeuvres.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been there many a time: ready to pull the covers up over my head and shove a thermometer in my mouth, fingers crossed for a 99.0.
Networking gives me anxiety. It makes me feel disingenuous, as if I’m presenting an image of myself that isn’t really truthful in order to achieve something that, at this point, is nebulous. There’s pressure to dress in the Talbots pantsuit, be the confident woman, have the firm handshake, and work the room, but those things aren’t ingrained in my persona yet. They have to be rehearsed and, of course, stepping outside of one’s comfort zone isn’t always fun.
I spoke with Katherine Hayes, recent Northwestern law graduate and author of “Breaking Chains to Build New Links,” a blog focusing on networking for young women professionals, about how to work through my ennui.
Save the Perfection for your Masterpiece
It’s important to remember, Hayes says, “You don’t have to be perfect.” We put so much pressure on ourselves to be seamless, to make important contacts immediately, but part of the beauty of networking is that there’s no “right” way and hence can appeal to your spirit of adventure. Think about the people you might meet whom you didn’t know six hours beforehand. Allow yourself to get excited about possibilities, instead of feeling pressure to produce certainties.
Networking is like planting seeds – you give an esteemed advisor a business card, you offer a potential client a link to your website or LinkedIn page, you speak with a respected colleague about a possible opportunity for collaboration – and some of those seeds may germinate instantly, while others may take some time to bear fruit. The ones that sprout immediately are rare; typically, as with most relationships, they require patient tending in order to grow.
Open-Ended Questions Key to Natural Conversation
Cultivating natural curiosity about other people is necessary to avoid conversations about the Red Sox or Southern California’s beautiful weather. Asking questions, particularly open-ended questions, can lend the discussion more depth. For example, at large networking functions, people often attend for similar reasons. A simple question, such as, “what brings you to this conference?” can lead to a potential alliance. If people are attending an event from across professions, “tell me about what you do?” works well. As these questions aren’t dead-end questions (i.e. “Do you like the food?” “Yes, do you?” “Yes…”) they allow for a more profound conversation to develop.
The Gift of Focus
In these exchanges, the most important thing to remember is to give your focus to the other person. I feel disingenuous about networking (and, by virtue of that, avoid it) because I’m unconsciously thinking about myself — how awkward it is for me to strike up conversations with strangers. Anxiety, trepidation, discomfiture put the spotlight on the person who feels them – they arise from within and they trigger withdrawal behaviors (for example, a lowering of the eyes or a slouch), making it more difficult to connect with other people.
Being genuinely interested in your conversation partner, paying attention to the visual cues you receive from his or her facial expressions or body language, and affixing your attention to what’s going on externally as opposed to your own thoughts will help deflect those unpleasant feelings. When your brain is actively engaged in something happening externally, it doesn’t have the energy to simultaneously focus on your internal struggle.
Not only will this active listening technique help you get out of your own way, but it also builds trust in your partner. If you’ve ever worked with someone who isn’t totally present mentally when you’re talking, you feel disconnected and it’s unpleasant. We naturally trust people who listen, people who are mentally alert to the moment as it unfolds rather than thinking forward to their weekend or reflecting back on the missteps of a morning meeting.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help
We all have services that we’re excited to offer to others, and that’s one reason why we may want to network, but don’t forget about the ways others can help you. Like negotiation, networking doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game – it can be a win-win prospect for both parties. For example, where you might have a blog and need items to feature, someone else may have a new book on the horizon and need some assistance with online marketing. If the two of you ask enough open-ended questions about each other’s endeavors, you may come up with a solution that helps both of you: for instance, the person with the blog might offer to review her new colleague’s book.
Asking for help from someone or asking how you may be able to collaborate isn’t a weakness, because networking isn’t like Scrabble – it’s not like whoever has the most points wins the game. Thinking about it in terms of “winning” or strength versus weakness actually inhibits your ability to come up with a creative strategy that employs both of your talents.
Quick Tips to Keep in your Back Pocket
If you’re still feeling nervous about that big networking event and think you need to be more prepared in order to allow conversations to flow naturally, here are some things you can do beforehand to make sure these behaviors are ingrained in your body.
Prepare several thirty-second sound bytes about things that you've done recently that may be of interest. This can be helpful if you worry about being put on the psot without an interesting story to tell. Like an actor in rehearsal, tell the stories to your mom or your boyfriend the night before and ask for feedback.
If you're going to a big conference where information about attendees is posted beforehand, pick three people in advance that you may want to talk to and do some research about those people in order to ask relevant questions. Have a conversation with someone you trust about the way you come across to others; what your vocal tone, body language, clothing, or facial expressions may be saying unconsciously. It's important to ask for feedback about things you may not be aware of, and if a person is genuinely interested in seeing you succeed, they will tell you the truth.
Taking a Cue from Young Hollywood
I live in Los Angeles, so I see people networking all the time: at Starbucks, at swanky lounges, at house parties high up in the Hollywood Hills, at fancy designer boutiques. I see it so much that I forget it’s happening and I perceive networking as relegated to functions designed specifically for it. But the truth is, prospective opportunities are all around us and it’s up to us to make those seeds germinate by taking simple steps towards being open to conversation.
Many of us have natural networking skills, but we limit ourselves when we over-think the process and forget that we’re operating within our wheelhouse. It doesn’t have to be schmoozy and it doesn’t have to be shallow; a simple question can deliver countless possibilities, but we must first dare to ask.