I used to avoid networking like the plague. Walking into a room full of name-tagged strangers was, in my mind, the worst thing ever. It's a miracle I ever made it to any events, but I did.
And I felt SO awkward at them.
The overwhelm I experienced upon entering a space filled with large groups of professionals already deep in conversation was intense. I had no clue how to navigate that situation, so I usually stood on the outskirts, scanning the room for a friendly face and someone who was also looking for a conversation buddy.
Ironically, I usually ended up having great 1-on-1 chats and walking away with genuine connections. But the exhaustion from my earlier anticipation and nerves outweighed the highlights, and by the end of the night I was just ready to crawl into bed.
In retrospect, my first experiences at networking events are a perfect example of how we can create our own nightmares. I kind of expected them to be awful and tiring and hard to navigate...so they were.
Thank goodness the opposite is also true: we can control how we choose to inwardly perceive experiences, and actively create more positive ones in our external reality.
I wasn't doing myself any favors by hyping up the event, making it into something bigger than it was, and placing tons of pressure on myself. I had unrealistic expectations about how far along in my career I should be, how many people I should meet, and what my overall experience should be like. Notice how that last sentence was riddled with lots of "should's" – never a good sign! I also wasn't going to events that resonated with me.
Eventually I realized all of this and decided to take dominion over my experiences with networking. I did so mainly out of necessity. I knew I'd be way too drained if I kept doing the same thing, and I needed to put myself out there if I ever wanted to meet new people in my new city. I decided I was ready to break free of the belief that networking has to be miserable.
I made networking work for me – an introverted homebody who loves people, but gets drained by big groups and had associated networking events with nerves and exhaustion.
I went on a search to make networking fun. And guess what? It worked!
If you want to meet new friends or professional contacts, but feel a lot of anxiety around attending networking events, I got you.
It took some trial and error, but luckily for you, I've compiled my best tips into a handy little list below:
- Choose events that actually sound fun to you. Bonus points if there's some structure, like a group activity or speaker (vs. just walking into a room and mingling). In my case, I've found I'm much more drawn to events that include being outside or some kind of workout than big, unstructured happy hours.
- Focus on making just one real connection. This is especially important for my fellow introverts out there. I know it can feel like "working the room" goes hand-in-hand with networking events, but it can actually be much more valuable to make one strong, genuine connection with someone that you click with naturally. Not only is this more energizing, but it allows you to be fully present with that person and takes the pressure off of having to meet everyone or constantly be fluttering from one conversation to the next.
- Make the commitment to yourself to actually go to the event – and make it non-negotiable (no backing out the day of the event). Unless of course you're sick or truly don't have it in you for whatever reason. Valid excuses only, because honoring your commitments to yourself is key to building self-trust and creating change in your life. I know how tempting it can be to talk yourself out of going to an event you signed up for weeks ago. But you signed up for a reason, and (most likely) that reason is still applicable now! Plus, you can't wait for your fear to dissipate completely, because if you do, you'll be waiting a long, long time – maybe even forever. At a certain point, you have to tell your fear to step aside and take action anyways.
- Reframe nerves into excitement. Any nerves are there because you care, which is actually really great news. It's fun to care. It's much harder to create change (or do anything really) when we stop caring. So appreciate the fact that you care, and if you feel nervous, try tapping into the giddiness underneath that feeling. That energy you feel bubbling up can be redirected into positive anticipation. Which leads me to #5...
- Create a mental vision for what the best case scenario looks like vs. going through the worst-case scenario, which is what we usually do! Picture yourself before, during, and after the event in the most ideal scene you can imagine. What are you wearing? How are you feeling? What sort of people are you meeting? What are you talking about? Really let yourself go there, and you'll likely be surprised at how some of your resistance to going to the event itself starts to fade away.
- Record how you feel before and after the event in a journal. Studies have shown that writing something down helps anchor it in your memory. Over time, you'll be able to remind yourself that everything you're feeling is pretty standard. In my case, whenever I feel any anxiety coming in the hours leading up to an event, I just acknowledge it like the predictable pattern that it is. Like, "Oh hey! I thought you might be here. Classic anxiety move - showing up right before an event." And sure, I might still feel tempted to stay home and cozy up in my little bubble...but I don't. Because if I recall or look back at my recorded experiences, I'll also see that I felt this way before the last event...and the one before that...and the one before that one, and on and on. And (most importantly!), I'll remember that I was actually super energized following each event. I had a great time, and I met cool people. So no matter how antsy I am right now, I know – like clockwork – that I'll feel awesome later.
- Call a friend before the event. This is a great way to get into "social mode" and remember how good it feels to connect with someone who loves and understands you. I always like to think about how I might meet a new amazing friend (like the one I'm talking to on the phone) at the event I'm headed to, and that serves as further motivation to put myself out there!
- Listen to music that pumps you up on the ride over. What songs make you feel like the empowered, unstoppable, fun, engaging, interesting person that you are? Whatever they are, PLAY THEM! Get those brain chemicals working in your favor! I suggest making a playlist that you can put on and listen to on your ride to the event. I'd be lying if I told you that I didn't listen to Beyoncé while I am en route...
- Make it about them, not you. When you are in conversations with new people, keep your focus on getting to know them. This will help you stay present instead of getting in your own head about how you're being perceived. Ask questions about whatever you're genuinely interested in – they don't have to be work-related. People can tell when you care, and everyone has a story worth hearing.
- Release any self-judgments you find yourself making after the event. So you went to the event! YOU DID IT! Ohmygod you should feel amazing and on top of the world and–what's that? You said the wrong thing? You forgot their name already? You had a chia seed smack dab in the middle of your two front teeth? You couldn't keep up with the group workout and felt like a hot sweaty mess? If you try, you'll always be able to come up with things you could have done better. But trust me, I've been there, and it's a real waste of energy. So, whatever it is – let it go. Replace the judgment with something positive that feels true, even if it's simple like "the truth is...I'm really proud of myself for putting myself out there when I could've much more easily stayed home and watched Netflix" or "I am so glad I met that woman Sarah – she was so fun! – I think I might have actually made a new friend!"
My hope is that these suggestions bring peace of mind to you before and after events, and allow you to bring your fullest, most authentic self to the table at events themselves. After all, that's when you're most likely to find and click with 'your people' anyways! And that, my friends, is so worth it.