How confident are you about networking?
You know it’s an integral part of any conference or business event. But not everyone finds it easy to strike up a casual conversation with a stranger. And what else is networking, if not talking to strangers?
Instinctively, you may find yourself looking for a familiar face, so you can dodge having that awkward sense of loneliness. You might be tempted to pull out your phone, and focus on the reassuring comfort within. If it’s a high-profile environment, you might be so intimidated that you want to leave.
But there’s no need to waste those opportunities to make great connections.
Management development consultant Christopher Barrat’s excellent TED talk on networking psychology makes a central promise: networking is a skill that can be learned.
He advises being tactical when approaching that room full of strangers, mingling at the coffee break. Don’t strike up conversation with anyone standing alone. Instead, search out a group of three. Note their body language, and look for ‘open groups’: people who are standing a little apart, leaving space for others to join the conversation.
Once you’ve found a group to join, it’s tempting to fling yourself into an introduction, or to cut into the conversation to sell yourself or what you have to offer. Alternatively, you might fall back on making small talk about the quality of the coffee, or whether they found the travel to the venue a pain.
Don’t. Barrat describes it as ‘being interested, before you are interesting.’ You have an opportunity to build a relationship with someone – and in turn everyone they know. You have an opportunity to learn from those around you what they might have to offer. Above all, you have the opportunity to make them like you.
Life coach Wendy Walker’s experience of being so overwhelmed at a networking event she fled to her hotel room led her to a new approach.
Before her next event, she came up with a strategic plan to get the most from every meeting. She researched the individuals who would be there, and which ones were people she wanted to connect with. Then she explored their background, via their online biographies or social media, to identify areas where they might have a connection.
If it sounds extreme, bear in mind that Walker is simply applying the principle of social intelligence. Knowing what others care about and value is a key part of respectful communication. By finding common ground, you’ll make it possible for your initial interactions to feel comfortable, and sensitive to the other person’s needs and interests.
Give more than you take
Ben Dattner suggests a full rethink of when we focus on networking.
In Psychology Today, he notes that a tendency to view networking as temporary and occasional instead of an ongoing process places undue pressure on those interactions. ‘A better practice is to network when you don’t need anything in particular, and to focus more on what you can do for others than on what they can do for you.’
People like to talk about themselves. People like to know you find them interesting. So make them feel good. You may just discover an essential fact which reveals you’re exactly who they need to network with, too.
Don’t worry if it’s a disaster
If your lack of confidence has left you a sweaty-palmed wreck, it might not be the worst thing. You might get to benefit from what’s known as the ‘pratfall effect.’
Identified by Harvard University psychologist Elliot Aronson, the pratfall effect suggests that people feel warmly towards anyone who has allowed themselves to seem vulnerable or fallible in some way.
If you juggle coffee all down your trousers, or cheerfully introduce yourself with someone else’s name, you’ll be memorable – and it gives you an easy opportunity to make a connection with others.