Your palms start sweating when you think of making cold calls. Someone tells you about an upcoming networking event, and you suddenly feel like you’re coming down with something contagious. The idea of walking into a crowded room and trying to meet as many people as possible to tell them about what you do is about as appealing as taking a leisurely swim in shark infested waters.
You don’t just get a little case of social jitters. You’re terrified.
While innate tendencies towards introversion might be set in stone, being shy and socially awkward is not. Believe it or not, the way you present yourself, and even the level of horror you experience when thinking about networking, is a learned behavior. Somewhere along the line, you got the message that mingling with strangers is dangerous business. No, you’re probably not going to have anyone punch you in the face at a networking event, but that’s not your worst fear, is it?
Your worst fear is rejection. It’s the nagging suspicion that the voice in your head telling you that you’re not cool enough, interesting enough, or smart enough for these people might be proven right. It’s the idea that someone might say something or give you a look that confirms what you knew all along. You’re an impostor. Your idea is bogus. And they’re all going to see right through it. Isn’t that what’s really holding you back?
It’s a painful thing to contemplate. It was probably ten times as painful when you actually experienced it at some point in your life. How old were you? Seven? Twelve? Seventeen? Whenever it was, I’m really, really sorry that some little shithead (or many shitheads) tormented you to the point where you learned that being visible is dangerous. Or maybe it wasn’t another kid. Maybe it was a teacher. Or your parents. In any case, it’s rotten. It sucks.
But you’re not that kid, anymore. And the people you’ll be networking with? Aside from the occasional person whose social development seems to have ceased with their first pimple, they’re not those kids, either. They’re also not authority figures you can’t escape from. And if anyone treats you unkindly, you’re not trapped. You can leave. You probably won’t have to, though. As hard as it might be for you to believe right now, most of the people you’ll encounter when you start networking are going to be really decent human beings. Some of them will probably even become your friends. If you’re very lucky, you might meet a mentor or two. That’s one piece of good news. And here’s another piece of good news:
Every learned behavior can be unlearned. You can unlearn your fear.
Overcoming your fear of networking won’t happen all at once. It’s a process. It’s going to take dedication, and it’s going to require you to step directly into the situations that scare you. This means that in the beginning it might feel like it gets worse before it gets better, especially if your coping mechanism of choice has been total avoidance. Push through that part. The good stuff is right around the next corner.
- Preparation alleviates stress – Prepare an elevator pitch, along with answers to a list of questions you think people will likely ask. Practice in front of a mirror until they roll off your tongue. If you know the names of some of the people who will be there, look them up online. Yes, do it! Be a social media stalker! Learn a little bit about what they do, along with their hobbies and interests. Bonus points for things you have in common, or their areas of expertise that you find fascinating, but don’t know much about. Conversation will be a million times easier.
- You don’t have to face it alone – Eventually, you’ll need to get comfortable networking alone, but you don’t have to start there. The first time or two, take a friend with you. Preferably a friend who is your social polar opposite. If you have a friend who could make conversation with absolutely anyone, rope them into going. They’ll drag you into conversations whether you want to be a part of them or not, and you’ll probably end up enjoying it in spite of yourself.
- Set a realistic goal – Realistic is subjective. For one person it might be staying for two hours and making at least eight new contacts. For another, staying for half an hour and making conversation with one person might be a major accomplishment. And for some, just walking through the doors and not allowing yourself to leave for fifteen minutes might be a push. It doesn’t matter how small you start. Just start. Set your goal and don’t let yourself bolt until you’ve met it.
- Check your body language at the door – Take a deep breath, all the way down into your belly. On the exhale, pretend like your head is being lifted towards the ceiling by helium balloons. Take a second deep breath, and this time on the exhale, roll your shoulders back and let them drop. With the third and last deep breath and exhale, pay attention to your hands. Don’t clench them. Give them a little shake to loosen them up. Drop them to your sides so you don’t end up crossing your arms and giving the silent signal that you’re closed off.
- Find the second shyest, most socially awkward person in the room – I say the second, because I’m presuming that you think you’ll be the first. Don’t try to cop out by saying you can’t tell who that person is. You’ll know, because they’ll look like you feel. They might have their arms crossed or make valiant efforts to look like they’re having a good time without making eye contact with anyone. They’ll probably be standing by the snack table or on the fray of the crowd. Make a beeline for this person. Introduce yourself. It will be good for both of you. You’ll feel more at ease talking to someone who is as scared as you, and they’ll be relieved that someone initiated a conversation.
- Strategic restroom use – If you feel yourself breaking a sweat and getting overwhelmed, instead of bailing out, go to the restroom. Take a few minutes to calm yourself down. Go back to the deep belly breathing. Shake out your muscles. Stand up straight. Smile until it starts to look somewhat natural. Then get back out there.
- Consistent repetition – Doing it once is a fantastic first step, but it’s all about repetition. You unlearn one way of being by learning a new way, and we learn by doing. Just like someone who plays the piano every day will progress faster than someone who practices once a week, the more consistent you are with your networking efforts, the quicker you’ll overcome your anxiety.
Remember that your fear is make believe. It might be based in something that really happened, but that moment has come and gone. It’s over. The fear that is causing you to feel shy and socially awkward now is nothing more than a shadow. It’s time to step out of the shadows and into the light. Everything looks a lot safer out here.