For as long as I can remember I’ve characterized myself, and others have characterized me, as anti-social. I avoided going to parties or any other social gathering, including my senior prom. Why? Because being with groups of strangers makes me anxious. I have no skill at small talk and hate talking about myself.
It wasn’t until I read a story about football star running back Ricky Williams that I found a better label for myself than anti-social. Like Ricky and 15 million other Americans, I suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder. \
So today I was quite surprised to read The Wall Street Journal article Networking for Actual Human Beings, The research is clear: People don’t mix at mixers, and don’t feel good about trying. But there are better ways to make meaningful connections by David Burkus.
A significant body of research demonstrates that networking—making and strengthening connections to others—is vitally important for professional success. But there’s a problem: Most of us hate doing it. We dread the awkward small talk with strangers at a noisy cocktail party, the pressure to deliver our “elevator pitch” and to “work the room.”
One such study cited in the article, a 2014 study published in the Administrative Science Quarterly, found that adults felt “morally tainted” just by thinking about job-related networking. I’m not sure what that “morally tainted” means but it certainly isn’t my problem. However, a study at the Columbia Business School found that:
Even though almost all of the executives said that they wanted to attend such events to build new business ties, it turned out that they spent, on average, around half their time in conversation with people they already knew. As the study’s authors put it, people just don’t mix at mixers.
Yep, I’d probably try to spend 100% of my time with people I already knew!
The author provides three ways to cope with networking anxiety:
- Spend more time reconnecting with friends than meeting new people This is a terrific idea. In fact an old colleague looked me up recently and we both enjoyed getting together again. This made me think about other people I’d lost touch with over the years whom I felt I could reconnect with.
- Seek out shared activities instead of unstructured events. The Columbia study suggests that we don’t really make good use of freewheeling social events with strangers. A productive alternative is to focus on an activity. I found this to be very true, as I’ve attended workshops at MIT with lots of strangers, but working in small groups on solving a problem together eliminated my social anxiety.
- Ask better questions. This is also a great tip when you are at an event with total strangers, one I figured out for myself, as I depend on my ability to ask good questions when I mentor entrepreneurs. And most people, unlike me, do enjoy talking about themselves!
All of these helpful recommendations for dealing with networking are from Mr. Burkus’s new book, Friend of a Friend: Understanding The Hidden Networks That Can Transform Your Life and Career, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Here’s some ways I’ve found to cope with my anxieties about networking.
- Go with a friend who’s an extrovert. You can shadow your friend and join into conversations he or she starts or joins. It also gives you both a topic for small talk, “How did you two get to know each other?’
- Join an existing conversation. I’ve learned from attending a lot of meetings that knots of people will emerge, often around a charismatic, talkative individual or two. It’s much easier to join an existing conversation than to start one yourself.
- Think about the reasons you are attending and be ready to talk about it. I find it’s a lot easier to talk about why I’m at a networking event than to talk about myself. For example, I’ve said that I are looking for good candidates for my stratetic advisory board. And if you force yourself to talk to enough people you might even accomplish your goal by networking!