We all know that personal connections are the best way to grow a business, drive sales, or find a job. But the word “networking” makes most people break out in a cold sweat. It conjures up images of stuffy mixers where nametags and white wine abound, and you’re just as likely to be pitched an insurance policy or get hit on as you are to make a legitimate business connection. Nevertheless, events are an essential tool in your professional arsenal.
Meeting people in person is the most effective way to build rapport. When there’s a whole group, it’s even more efficient. But what if you’re afraid of getting trapped in an awkward or bad conversation? c We’ve all been there, and that fear can keep us from meeting new people, or even from attending events in the first place.
Luckily, you can guard against this situation, push yourself outside your comfort zone, and finally leave your house to meet other socially awkward grown-ups.
Prevention Is The Best Cure
The best way to avoid getting sucked in to a swirling, awkward vortex is to be less awkward yourself. People who aren’t awkward don’t worry about getting stuck in bad conversations – they have internalized mechanisms for shaping their interactions.
Introversion Vs. Social Anxiety
All humans need social connections, and that includes you, introverts of the world! If you’ve been claiming introversion as an excuse to avoid talking to people, it’s time to face the facts: You may have social anxiety. The nice thing about having social anxiety is that you can work on it. Get professional counseling or do some DIY immersion therapy like an improv class or Toastmasters. Your goal isn’t to become an outgoing extrovert – you can still be shy and reserved – but to get to a point where you no longer feel like your heart is going to explode as you approach the registration table.
If you’re awkward at events, consider that it may be because you lack experience. No one is good at anything when they first start out. We don’t expect to be in great shape after two trips to the gym – why would we expect to be instantly charming and relaxed in new social settings? The more you practice, the more you build those muscles, and the easier and more enjoyable it gets.
If big, free-for-all happy hours aren’t your thing, no problem! Seek out smaller, industry specific events aligned with your interests. Better yet, attend workshops or lectures. You’re more likely to have things in common with people, and smaller numbers are less intimidating. Events with structure and facilitated interaction keep things moving and offer easy ways to extract yourself from conversation.
Awkward conversations often happen because neither party has anything interesting to say. Take responsibility for being interesting by preparing topics you genuinely enjoy discussing. Your professional interests, summer travel plans, a cool new smartphone app, or an interesting new local business (cat cafes, anyone?) are all great fodder. Avoid the weather, traffic, sports, and television – superficial topics only lead to superficial connection!
Be ready to draw other people out of their shells. Ask open-ended questions and allow conversation to flow from those. When using open-ended questions, your role is active listening and keeping your partner elaborating – and it’s much easier than trying to generate topics you think the other person will like. Bonus: We’re all our own favorite subject matter; get someone talking about themselves and they’ll remember you in a more positive light.
When All Else Fails
You’ve tried all of the above, and then some, to no avail. You’re stuck in a conversation that’s more painful than a trip to the DMV. It’s time to pull out the big guns.
Use Body Language Instead Of Words
More than half of our communication is non-verbal. Even if you’re clueless about other people’s non-verbals, you can modify your own to shape the outcome of interactions. Whereas we adopt open or mirroring postures when we’re interested, we do the reverse when we’re trying to detach. Start to shift away from your partner – ever so slightly – and let your gaze drift a bit. In small doses, this can be really effective, but use sparingly, as you don’t want to be rude.
When you’re stuck with someone who won’t stop talking and you can’t get a word in edgewise, square up your shoulders and lift one hand a few inches to indicate you want them to stop or pause. Most people respond to this gesture, even if they didn’t see you staring at the clock and drooling for the last ten minutes.
Initiate Exit Strategy!
A pre-determined exit strategy is more effective than winging it, mainly because you’re more likely to feel confident and actually use it.
My favorite: Wait for a tiny pause in conversation and say something like, “Excuse me, I’m going to get a drink/load up on free shrimp at the buffet table.” I love inviting the person to come get food or drinks with me. More often than not, as we move across the room or land at a new station, we each strike up conversations with other people and our conversation comes to a natural end.
Use The Buddy System
Attending events with friends or colleagues is a great built-in exit strategy. Don’t stick to each other all night, but check in occasionally and agree upon a signal you can use to let the other person know you want to be rescued.
You arrived prepared. You talked to strangers. You made a couple solid connections. But you still spent way more time than you intended in dull conversation with people you probably won’t ever see again. It’s okay! The event was still a success and you should congratulate yourself for attending. This is an area in which getting an “A for effort” matters more than a single outcome. Go home, unplug, and rest up until the next time.
This post was originally published at an earlier date.
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