Are you great at what you do – yet daunted by the idea of networking? Does introducing yourself to a stranger in a conference feel like the equivalent of cold-calling – and just as ‘icky’ – for want of a technical term.
Well you are not alone. Many highly trained and competent professionals, find themselves a wallflower at events like conferences – watching the action, but not quite sure of the best way to dive in.
And how do I know this? Not only am a former (and mostly reformed) wallflower myself, but networking strategies often come up in coaching conversations with my clients.
So in this blog, I’ll step you through a solution-focused coaching approach to networking that will empower you to make the most of your next networking event.
Step 1: Set your mindset
There’s a good reason networking contains the word ‘work’ – because in a sense it is work. Networking is now a core competency for professional life. It’s how professional relationships are made, deals are brokered and work is found.
But remember, although networking is often conducted in social-like settings, it is NOT socialising and you are NOT trying to make new friends – although that may happen inadvertently. So before you head off to your next dinner meeting or conference put on your work ‘hat’ and tap into your professional persona.
Step 2: Focus on what you really want
Whether you are attending an event for education, professional development points or a tax deductible holiday, each event represents a unique opportunity in terms of the mix of other people who attend. So think about who else is likely to be there, what their experience, skill set and interests and what exposure to that may give you to networking benefits including:
- Expanding your peer network
- Forming a study group
- Exploring work or employment opportunities
- Finding a new employee
- Finding new clients or customers
- Learning something from an expert
- Hearing about other study or professional opportunities
- Tapping into current thinking in the broader profession about relevant political issues AKA keeping your finger on the pulse.
Step 3: Tap into your experience
Although it’s anxiety provoking, talking to complete strangers is already a skill you have had plenty of practice in. To get this far in your career you will have had to meet new customers, clients, patients, colleagues and employees on a frequent basis – and to do that you will have developed sophisticated communication skills.
Often we do things like talking to people on automatic – without really noticing that we are doing it – or how. So take a moment to think about the last new person you met at work and what it was like for you, how you were feeling, what you did and how the conversation went.
Depending on the context it’s likely you did some or all of the following:
- Thought about the purpose of the conversation and prepared yourself
- Warmed into the conversation with a hand shake or some small talk about the weather or the traffic
- Had a notebook, agenda paper or other prompt with you.
Whatever you did involved communication skills. You can use all those things, that you probably do very well without even thinking about it, in a networking context.
Step 4: Harness your nervous energy
Feeling stressed, nervous or excited prior to meeting someone new is normal, natural and a good thing. Nerves and stress are part of the sympathetic nervous system arousal (often called the fight or flight response) that occurs when you are preparing to take action. This arousal enhances your performance and keeps you focused and sharper. Adrenalin also causes your pupils to dilate and your breathing to become a little faster – both of which may make you seem more attractive. So nerves really can be your best friend when meeting new people.
Of course, too much arousal can affect your performance and needs to be managed with relaxation, mindfulness or other stress reduction activities. But remember, your aim is not to feel no stress or anxiety – but to make it manageable.
Step 5: Focus on the other person
Although networking is not social, at heart it is about relationship building. And relationships involve give and take.
So approach each new person with curiosity and listen hard – not for what you can get from them – but for what you can give. With each person you talk to, think about how you may help them – and help make their professional life a little easier. Even if it’s just a smile or a kind word.
If you are feeling daunted and out of your depth, it’s likely that other people are too. So even just some small talk about the cake or the quality of the presentation can make someone else’s day a little brighter.
Step 6: Set realistic goals
The best way to get better at networking is one conversation at a time. So don’t expect yourself to go from lurker to award-winning networking in an afternoon. Instead think about stretching yourself just a little out of your comfort zone. Perhaps it’s enough to meet one new person, or strike up a conversation about the creaminess of the cheesecake. Or maybe it’s introducing yourself to the keynote speaker.
Whatever it is, set yourself a goal – and assess yourself against that. If you do more – that’s fantastic you can set harder goals next time. And if you do less – then be kind to yourself. This is a learning journey and there is always another opportunity. Success is built one conversation at a time.