Guide to Becoming a Better Networker (for People Who Hate Networking)


“Networking.” For many people just hearing that word conjures up feelings of dread and anxiety. It’s a form of social and professional interaction – ritual, even  – that, while torturous for some, is an absolute necessity in the majority of professional settings and fields, academic and non-academic alike. If you want to get ahead, you need to get comfortable with networking.

Don’t stress... first, remember that you’re not alone. One Harvard Business School study found that most people who network with the explicit goal of advancing their careers (isn’t that ultimately what most networking is about anyway?) come away from the experiencing actually feeling dirty… like physically, I-need-to-take-a-shower dirty. According to the study’s authors, “networking for professional goals can impinge on an individual’s moral purity … and thus make him or her feel dirty.” This doesn’t include all the people who either identify as introverts, the painfully shy, people who actually suffer from social anxiety disorders, or otherwise unafflicted professionals who just simply don’t like these kinds of hybrid social/professional interactions.

Not surprising, the internet is full of articles promising good networking tips and strategies – some valuable, others a little unrealistic for people who loathe the process and just aren’t natural networkers.

We culled the best tips and compiled them in one comprehensive list here, specifically for people who admittedly hate networking:

Believe in yourself: This is a tired cliche, but consider this: The authors of that same Harvard study also found that professionals in leadership positions of power did not suffer from the same kind of anxiety or “dirty” feelings when networking. The reason can be traced back to one thing… confidence.

People in positions of power are more likely to feel confident about their ideas and themselves in these situations and thusly experience less anxiety around them (and… as a result, they are more successful networkers). So, if you want to rid yourself of some of your dread around networking, start by working on your self-confidence, and the rest should naturally take care of itself.

Stay sober: Nervous networkers often seek to mask their discomfort by over-imbibing. While a cocktail here or there probably won’t make a difference, drinking too much spells disaster at a networking event. No matter what you say after over-indulging (which, it likely won’t be your best insights), anyone you meet will remember you as “the drunk” one at the event. No. Just no.

Prepare ahead of time: The more prepared you are with talking points or questions to ask, the more relaxed you’ll feel. If a lull in the conversation makes you nervous (especially when you’re meeting someone for the first time), having a few fall-back ideas in your pocket will make you feel “safe” and more confident.

Also, give some thought about why you’re attending this particular networking event. What do you want to accomplish? Is there anyone you really want to talk to? What do you want to convey about yourself or your company? Think beforehand of the best strategies to accomplish some of your goals, but once you’re at the event, remember to relax and act naturally (even if you have a very clear agenda in mind).

Listen: At your next networking event, rather than obsessing or stressing out over what you need to say about yourself, your current research, or your career path, take a different approach. Step outside of yourself a bit and think about the people you’re talking with. Ask them questions, listen. Practice real, genuine active listening here, periodically setting aside your own personal agenda. Not only will this approach help you to appear more natural (a key feature of a successful networker), but it will also put you at ease and remove some of the “pressure to be brilliant” in each conversation.

What’s more, you’ll likely come away from these conversations having learned something interesting or new, and even if that’s all you accomplish at the event, you’ll have succeeded. If you think of networking events as learning experiences or even research exercises (rather than a professional fishing expedition), you might even learn to look forward to them!

Don’t forget your business cards: Come prepared. If you’re not, you’ll be scrambling all night to enter numbers into your phone. An unnecessary inconvenience.

Practice makes perfect: Sort of. There’s no “perfect” way to network, but it is true that the more you network, the better at it you’ll get and the less nervous you’ll be at each event.

Try to connect organically: You don’t have to join a “networking group” to reap the benefits of networking. Make an effort to socialize with colleagues at or outside of work, identify your “super connectors” and tap into their connections, participate in things you consider fun or interesting… Try to put yourself into social or professional situations where “networking” happens organically, naturally, and in a relaxed environment.

Follow up: Always follow up with an email, message on social media, text or call after you make a good connection with someone, not only to keep a good conversation going or add that person to your professional network, but also to lay the groundwork for a good rapport when you see them at future gatherings. If you continue to follow up each time, your conversations and interactions will naturally get more meaningful and complex. Again, the communications shouldn’t be forced (if it feels manufactured or artificial, it’s probably not worth your time) but natural and friendly. If you’re not sure what to say in a follow-up message or you don’t remember the person, a simple “thank you” or “it was nice meeting you the other day” will do. If you can add specifics, that’s ideal, but a nice, general thank you note is always better than nothing at all.

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