Here is Part 2 of my two-part series, “Networking for the Socially Challenged.” This segment will feature tips for the shy on how to deal with networking situations (as well as other types of social interaction). If you are new to the series, I suggest reading my previous posts on introversion and shyness; although frequently confused with each other, they are not the same thing! Also, I suggest reading Part 1: Introverted if you haven’t already.
As always, I encourage all three of my readers to join the conversation via comments.
Now, without further ado,
Networking for the Shy
My shyness (or, if you prefer, social anxiety) has been an obstacle in my life for as long as I can remember, but it reached its worst ever right after high school, and it took me years to get where I am now. For example, I used to be so scared to eat alone in my college cafeteria that I would skip multiple meals in a row if I couldn’t find somebody to join me. Furthermore, in my university, it wasn’t altogether unusual for somebody to stay cloistered in their dorm room, only emerging for classes and meals. This situation only reinforced my shy behavior–I could justify it because “everyone else was doing it.”
This may be skirting the edge of “too much personal information,” but I want to show how crippling my social anxiety was. I’ve evolved to the point where I am able to go to a networking event or meetup with total strangers and only panic a little bit deep down inside. It was a very difficult for me to get to this point, and I hope that the tips I provide here will help others approach their shyness and eventually conquer it, as well.
Instead of approaching this post as a list of tips like I did in Part 1, I will be addressing some of what my worst obstacles have been in networking situations.
I’m not sure how to get started!
First of all, keep in mind the tips in Part 1. They’re mostly from an introvert’s perspective, but they also apply to the shy among us (especially the parts about starting conversations and asking questions to let the speaker carry the conversation). Also, many of the socially anxious are also introverted, as is the case with myself.
Start small. Don’t try to go to a 50-person banquet or a packed disco–even if you make it through the door, you will either flee out the door immediately or huddle miserably in a corner the whole time (I am speaking from experience, here). If that happens, you will only end up feeling worse about yourself, which will only make your anxiety worse. Remember, most shyness is based in hyper self-consciousness or self-judgment–don’t give yourself any more ammo to use against yourself.
So do little things first. If necessary, go all the way back to one-on-one interactions. Go to the post office and chat with the people in line. Hand in your rent in person instead of mailing it. Order a pizza over the phone instead of online. Basically, do all of the stuff in person that you otherwise avoid by using the Internet or other means. This will go a long way toward building up your confidence.
Once you’ve established single-person interactions within your comfort zone, try for a larger group. Perhaps a poetry reading at a coffee shop? Maybe a book club? Maybe you can volunteer for a cause you feel strongly about. If you are still in school, join a club. All of these suggestions have two things in common: 1) they will all be relatively small groups; and 2) they are groups bound by a common interest. If you find a group with a common interest, you not only know you have something to talk about, but you will already be (possibly unconsciously) within your comfort zone. It’s always easier to talk confidently about a topic you know and/or feel passionate about.
From here, just keep joining progressively larger groups until you feel you’re able to handle giant international conferences. The key here is don’t give up!
But they’re all judging me!
They’re actually not, and you know this on an intellectual level. I realize it’s tough convincing your fluttery stomach and heart palpitations otherwise. Let me see if I can help.
First of all, you’re not going to say or do the wrong thing. Once you’ve gotten that to sink in, half the battle is won. If you’re asking them questions and letting them do all the talking, you can’t possibly say the wrong thing. If you let people talk about themselves or their interests, they will remember you as a conscientious, attentive conversational partner. In short, they’re too busy lauding themselves to judge you.
Now here’s an exercise for you: Think of the last social gathering you attended. How many names do you remember? How many faces? How many words do you remember out of how many conversations? Chances are you remember very few details from that event, least of all specific details about the people and their behavior. Well, it’s the same for everyone. Most people won’t remember you once you’re out of their immediate vicinity. It’s not because you’re uninteresting; it’s just because that’s how people are. They can’t truly be judging you if they won’t even remember you!
On the other side of this coin, if you’re at a networking event because you need something (like a job), you WANT them to remember you! So, in the unlikely event that they were judging you, it is actually a GOOD thing! I know it sounds extremely after school special, but just be yourself and act like an adult and you’ll be fine.
But I don’t want to impose on anyone!
You’re not imposing on anyone by just talking to them! They’re there to socialize. If you can’t get over the feeling that you’re somehow inconveniencing them, try this: compliment them (but be sincere!). Say you like their hat or hair or shirt. Whatever, as long as you mean it. This will already give them a positive impression of you, and inconvenience will be the last thing on their mind. Furthermore, they might compliment you on your shoes or something, which will make you feel good about yourself!
How do I deal with the anxiety before and during the event?
This is a big one. If you’re on your way to an event and the anxiety builds up, you might not make it through the door. This could be very discouraging and make you feel worse about yourself. Alternately, you might make it through the door before the anxiety hits, but find yourself on the verge of a panic attack. This is one of the toughest situations I’ve found myself in. Here are some things I’ve done to help avoid the pre- and during-socialization freak outs.
- Wear comfortable clothing! Being physically comfortable will go a long way toward being psychologically comfortable. Of course, you need to wear something appropriate for the event, but that doesn’t mean you have to eschew comfort options. Instead of wearing super high heels, just wear some reasonable professional flats. Try a lighter/heavier fabric if you know you’re typically too hot or cold. Furthermore, clothing is armor. If you know you look good and feel good, you’ll feel better about socializing.
- Find a conversational “comfort zone.” Pick a topic or story you know you’re comfortable with and stick with it if you can without derailing ongoing conversations. This is why it’s important to start the conversation–you can steer it to topics you’re comfortable with. You can even mentally prepare some scripts to stick with in case you become tongue tied. However, if you are interested and informed about the topic, you probably won’t have problems talking about it.
- Take a friend. A friend can help you get through the door if you hesitate. Your friend can also make introductions and help you get started in conversations. Your friend is essentially an extension of your comfort zone. But DO NOT let your friend do all the work for you. You will not make any progress if you let this happen. You have to take control of your anxiety–your friend cannot do this for you. Make sure this friend knows about your anxiety issues, and let them know ahead of time how best to react to situations that may come up (such as impending panic attacks).
- Get away from the crowd if you start to panic. The sweating, shortness of breath, shaking limbs, increased pulse, impending tears–the all-too-familiar symptoms of GET THE HECK OUT RIGHT NOW. It’s hard to fight. The best thing you can do is excuse yourself and get away from people. If you have a friend with you, tell them where you’re going (they should know ahead of time that you need to be alone at this point). Go get some air or get a drink. Once you’re alone, concentrate on your breathing or perform some muscle relaxation. Once you’re calmed down again, go back inside. Also, instruct your friend to call you after a pre-determined duration to make sure you haven’t fled the scene.
- Have somebody “on call” who can help you through the panic. Sometimes you just need to know you have somebody to talk to. Have somebody available whom you can call to talk through your anxiety. Ideally, this person will be aware of your shyness and will provide the encouragement you need to get back to your socialization. I’ve always had my mom on call because she’s dealt with her own shyness and knows how to react.
- Don’t give up! Giving up and leaving the event before you intended (or worse, not getting there at all), is the worst possible thing you can do. Why? Because it feels good. When you avoid or leave a situation that makes you anxious or uncomfortable, you feel a very pleasurable rush of relief. The relief is FAR preferable to the panic and discomfort, so you’ve essentially rewarded yourself for giving up. Do not positively reinforce this bad behavior! Instead, think how good you’ll feel when you’ve stuck it out! You be able to say you accomplished something despite the discomfort, rather than giving in to feel relief. This will be much more effective in the long run, and you’ll ultimately feel way better about yourself because you didn’t give up.
And then what?
Then just practice, practice, practice. The more you manage to get through these sorts of events, the easier it will get. You’ll feel less anxiety and discomfort, the heart palpitations will become less frequent, and before you know it, you’ll be more or less comfortable networking.
Do I still think about turning around at the door? Of course, but it’s momentary and I know that I’ll feel much better about myself in the long run if I go in. I’ve even started enjoying myself and sticking around willingly!
Focus on the successes. Sure, you might run from a room on the verge of tears and a panic attack. But don’t dwell on it. Instead, think about all the times when you managed to make somebody laugh or when somebody complimented your hat. Nobody is perfect, and you don’t have to be, either! Stop beating yourself up and go have some fun!