If networking events sound about as fun as a root canal to you, you’re not alone. Between one-third and a half of people identify as introverts — people who prefer a quiet, intimate setting over crowded social situations. But as a smart business leader, you know developing relationships and connecting with people is an important part of success and career development.
You can develop business relationships in ways that feel genuine, even if the term “networking” makes you cringe. Take the tips below and use them to help you network in a way that works for you.
- Have a plan. Feeling prepared and ready for any kind of interaction can help take the fear out of networking. Think of a few ways you can start and end a conversation. Practice them in your head and then think about some questions to ask in between and answers to questions you might be asked. Having an outline for your interactions will make you feel more comfortable and less vulnerable to unknowns.
- Do your homework. If people you want to meet are attending or might be attending an event, put in a little research to find out more about them and try to find something you have in common. Maybe you both have a dog or kids close in age. If you know what you have in common ahead of time, you can steer the conversation in that direction. Discussing a mutual interest will feel more comfortable for both of you. Of course, you don’t want to pretend to have something in common if you don’t, so if your research doesn’t reveal commonalities, you can also approach them with a compliment or ask a question.
- Bring a buddy. Bring a friend or colleague with you to your event to make it less scary. They might know people you don’t and vice versa and can help make introductions. You can also tag team meeting new people, taking turns starting the conversation and then letting the other person take over. Beware of using a networking buddy as a crutch. Don’t pair yourself with a social butterfly and be the quiet sidekick. Choose someone who is also interested in networking, set goals for the event, and keep each other accountable.
- Ask better questions. Many introverts dislike networking because they don’t like small talk. Fair enough. Avoiding classics like, “What do you do? Where do you work?” and asking more interesting questions will open the door for a more genuine connection. Come up with some alternative questions like, “What’s the most exciting thing you’re working on right now? What’s your favorite thing about your job/city/company? What are you looking forward to this year?” Asking better questions will help you stand out and avoid tedious small talk.
- Be candid. Meeting strangers is awkward for most people. It can be refreshing and disarming to call out the elephant in the room. Approaching someone and saying, “I feel so uncomfortable at these events, but I’d love to get to know more professionals in my industry/city, tell me about your experience here,” is a great way to break the ice and bring authenticity to your interaction.
- Start online. Building professional relationships doesn’t have to be done in person or at events. Technology makes engaging and connecting with new people easier than ever. Apply the same skills to building online relationships that you would to meeting people in person. Ask good questions, be authentic, find common interests, and look for ways to add value. Spending 10 minutes a day reaching out to new people or “weak ties” can dramatically expand your network and gives you the ability to craft intros and responses without being put on the spot.
- Skip the events. You don’t have to attend events or conferences to network. You can start online as mentioned above. When you’ve created a warmer connection online, you can meet in a setting in which you feel more comfortable, like for coffee, lunch or a phone call.
- Focus on helping others. When you think of serving others first, it takes your mind off of worrying of what other people think of you. Focus on how you can give to the people you are meeting. You’re not the only one who feels awkward at networking events. How can you make the person you’re connecting with feel more comfortable? What can you do to add value to their experience? When your goal is to serve others, your own discomfort and vulnerability takes a back seat.
- Create your own group. Hosting an event gives you the opportunity to control your environment and be selective about who and how many people you invite. It’s also a great way to serve others, giving them the opportunity to expand their network with your contacts. Encourage your contacts to invite their colleagues and friends to the event and let it grow around you.
- Practice. Go out of your way to talk with colleagues, your coffee barista, or people you see at the gym. Ask open-ended questions, think about how you can serve them, and make a point to get to know them better. The more you invite connection with the people in your day-to-day life, the easier forming relationships with new people will feel.
A room full of strangers is intimidating, even for many extroverts. It takes courage to put yourself out there and commitment to develop authentic relationships. Experts agree that our network dramatically impacts our success, and studies show that connecting with others makes us happier. Next time you have that nagging feeling of needing to network but not wanting to feel fake or awkward, use the tips above to do it on your own terms.