I’ve found that some of the most awkward “new situations” are business networking events. For many, the challenge is not in understanding the strategies and tactics for effective networking (those are only a few clicks a way on the Internet), but simply getting the courage to go up and introduce yourself to someone you don’t know.
A few years ago, Columbia University Professors Paul Ingram and Michael Morris demonstrated this in a clever experiment. They organized a networking event for executives. More than 95 of the attendees said their goal was to meet new people. Prior to the event, they asked everyone to examine the attendee list and identify who they knew. When the executives arrived to network, they gave them a special badge that allowed the researchers to track who talked to who.
They found that despite their best intentions, most of the executives spent the majority of their time talking to people they already knew, and only met new people if they had an acquaintance in common. Their advice for networkers: Don’t bring your friends along.
I’ve found that this reluctance to introduce oneself to strangers at networking events comes from four things:
- Intrusion anxiety: They don’t want to interrupt and bother busy people or those already engaged in conversation.
- Impression anxiety: They are worried about making a good first impression.
- Performance anxiety: They fear making stumbles during the networking conversation and looking bad.
- Rejection anxiety. They don’t want to hear “no” or “we’ll see” and what they perceive that signifies about their networking abilities and potential value to an organization.
Much of this anxiety comes from our natural, hardwired anxiety around strangers, not from a history of bad networking experiences. Most people have said that when they actually do it, 99 percent of the time it goes great, but that doesn’t seem to reduce their reluctance the next time.
My general advice for becoming more comfortable and confident at networking events is the following:
- Recognize that most everyone at the networking event probably feels a little awkward and nervous, too. We haven’t evolved to be good at mingling with a bunch of strangers (something that basically never happened in human history until a few hundred years ago).
- Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If the roles were reversed and you were being approached, how would you feel? Would you be annoyed or would you welcome the interaction and conversation? If you’d be comfortable, then assume they’d be comfortable, too, and go for it.
- If you want to make a good first impression, be friendly, humble, and a good listener. If this is a potentially a critical connection, let them drive the conversation, but look for opportunities to talk a little bit about yourself and your goals.
- See it as a numbers game. It’s inevitable you’ll have some awkward or flat conversations. The significance of those conversations drops exponentially as you push past them and network with more people.
Ultimately, a little anxiety at networking events is probably good, as it keeps you focused and alert. But too much can either turn networking events into a stressful, energy-draining experience or more tragically cause you to avoid them altogether. Understand your anxiety, accept it, find and make eye contact with a friendly face, and go for it.
Excerpt from “What to Do When You’re New: How to Be Confident, Comfortable, and Successful in New Situations” by Keith Rollag (AMACOM, September 2015). Originally published on TrainingMag.com and is published here with the author’s consent.