For many people, the word, “networking,” is scary and brings about uncomfortable feelings. This isn’t surprising because approximately half of the population is introverted, so networking and being social or outgoing is actually a lot of work for them.
It’s not as easy for some people, and as a result, this group generally HATES networking.
But without networking, they will be hard-pressed to find that next opportunity. They are seemingly trapped between a rock and a hard place, so what do they do?
Luckily for those who feel this way, there are some simple things you can do to boost your networking without causing a lot of anxiety and stress on yourself.
1) Start by Reconnecting.
Before you dive into making new connections, begin by reconnecting with old friends or with people you already know whom you haven’t spoken to in a while.
This is a great way to ease into networking. It alleviates the stress of going into a conversation completely blind. In this type of situation, you already know a little bit about the person; thus, you already have a starting point for conversation. For example, when you last spoke, what was he/she about to do? Was their child about to compete in a big soccer tournament or something? Start with that… “Hey, I know it’s been a while, but I just wanted to catch up with you, and see how little Bobby did in that soccer tournament a few months back.”
This reduces the pressure of trying to find something to talk about, which is usually the most anxiety-ridden part of any conversation for an introvert. Once the conversation gets started though, it will probably flow naturally from there, and overall stress levels will be reduced.
The ice is much easier to break when you already know the person (even tangentially) and you’ve spoken previously. Take full advantage of any tidbit of information you can remember about them to find your starting place.
The goal here is to just try and pick up where you left off. Then see where the conversation goes. Hopefully, they will leave you with something new: a suggestion to speak to someone else (make sure you get that contact info!), a possible job or internship opportunity you may be interested in, an idea that may help you accomplish a goal you’ve been working towards, etc.
By reinvigorating a relationship with a connection you’ve already made, the anxiety-filled – or downright scary! – part of networking with a “stranger” effectively becomes a non-issue.
It’s much easier to reconnect than it is to establish a first connection, so for those who hate networking, try this strategy of first reconnecting in hopes of getting a referral to a new connection. Then, when you reach out to that new potential connection, you can mention that you were referred to them by your friend/colleague, which makes that cold email much less cold and much more successful. 🙂
2) Find a Super-Connected Friend.
We all know people who are incredibly well connected, both socially and professionally. Think about it… don’t you know of someone who seems to know EVERYONE?? I bet a name comes to mind for you… You need to make yourself their sidekick!
Follow their footsteps. If they’re going to an event, ask to join them. Meet their connections, and let them do the introductions for you. Simply follow their lead. If they head over to the guest speaker without fear, go with them! Be respectful though, and hang back a little to avoid interfering in their networking plan, but make sure you get noticed. Any good friend will gladly introduce you to whomever they’re speaking with once they’ve gotten their “hello’s” and chit-chatting out of the way.
By hanging out with well-connected friends, you’ll expand your network simply by being associated with that friend, and the best part is that they do most of the work! Well-connected people tend to be extremely comfortable leading a conversation, so let them do the talking. All you need to do is tag along and speak up when you’re spoken to or introduced.
Often times, once they help you strike up a conversation, you’ll be able to sail through the rest of it while your friend goes off to speak to someone else, so you won’t feel like their shadow the entire night.
See the value in these “Super-Connected” friends to help you with the difficult part of networking: starting the conversation. Once that’s accomplished, you’ve mastered one of the biggest challenges in networking!
3) Move Your Desk.
This may be difficult to do in the lab setting, as lab benches are not so mobile, however, the concept could still apply…
There is a great story out there about an entry-level employee at a huge company who was able to advance his career simply by moving his desk.
The employee worked at a firm with an open desk format where all the cubicles were neatly arranged in the open floor plan of the office space. He worked for a few months and realized that a number of the higher-ups who worked in the closed offices around the perimeter of the room often walked by one area of the open floor plan – the area by the water cooler and coffee station, which also served as the hallway to the food court.
Determined to get noticed in his company and make conversation with those in high places, the employee asked if he could use the cubicle by the busy intersection – no one was currently using it because it was perceived as a difficult place to get work done due to the constant foot traffic passing by on a regular basis.
Within a week or two of moving to the new cubicle and occasionally striking up conversation with those who stopped by the water cooler/coffee station, the employee had met many high-ranking individuals in the company, his work and his specific contributions to the company had become more noticed, and he had been offered new projects that gave him an opportunity to really shine and stand out.
Within a few months, he got a promotion.
Eventually, he climbed the ladder of the company and currently holds one of the key decision-making positions for that company. To this day, he attributes all of his accomplishments and successes to the simple move he made six months into his job.
Had he not moved his desk to a more naturally social environment, he may not have become as successful in the firm as he has.
Of course, moving your lab bench isn’t possible, however, we can apply the lesson from this story to our daily lives. Maybe there’s a water cooler or a coffee station near your lab that gets a lot of foot traffic – frequent that area more often and use that coffee break as a way to meet members of other labs, other PIs on the floor, etc.
For introverts, unexpected or unplanned meetings or conversations can be a bit stressful, however, if you establish that “getting coffee” is a “time for light networking” for yourself, you will be more mentally prepared for these interactions.
So in this way, keeping your bench where it is and visiting a hot spot more frequently is a better opportunity for you than moving your desk to a busy area because you can control WHEN those unexpected conversations occur (i.e. only when you visit the coffee station).
At the same time, you can always retreat back into the lab to tend to an experiment if you find that your anxiety is mounting during the conversation – hint… set a 5-10 minute timer, take it with you into the break room, and when it goes off, use that as a reason to excuse yourself from the conversation if it becomes too stressful for you. 🙂
4) Let Your Connections Do The Talking.
Another tactic introverts can use to minimize the stress of holding a conversation is to let your network connection do most of the talking.
People are interesting… People LOVE to talk about themselves and their accomplishments, and oddly enough, after a conversation in which they’ve mostly talked about themselves, people generally tend to think YOU are the greatest person.
It seems backwards, but there’s some psychology behind it. When others show interest in us, endorphins get flowing and we get those “happy feelings.” When we have those feelings, we tend to give praise and credit where they may not be due.
Use this aspect of human nature to your advantage. When you strike up a conversation with a new contact, ask them tons of questions about themselves. Get them to do most of the talking. Keep asking about their work, their research, their accomplishments, their company, anything you can think of. Keep them talking and keep praising their achievements, and you won’t have to carry the conversation much at all. And the added benefit is that they will still come away from the conversation thinking highly of you. 🙂
Of course, you want to mention a few things about yourself so that they know a little about you, your background, and your goals, but if you can get them to do most of the talking, networking will be much less exhausting for you… and almost equally effective!
5) Start a “Networking Fund.”
Lastly, sometimes people shy away from networking, not because of their personalities, but because of the expense. Meeting up for happy hour three times a week can certainly take its toll on a graduate student stipend or a postdoc salary.
Along with this struggle comes guilt. Often times, students and postdocs are caught in an inner conflict of “I should go and network because it’ll be good for me,” vs. “I shouldn’t go because I really can’t afford it.” We’ve all been there, probably more than once, and it can be a difficult juggling act.
One way to overcome this inner conflict is to set aside some money from each paycheck for networking. That way, any expenses that you incur while networking aren’t dipping into the funds you need for rent, utility bills, phone bills, etc. This will help relieve some of the guilt associated with networking, and it can also help you set limits on networking – you can only network as much as your “networking fund” will allow.
Having limits on networking for financial reasons can also help in other aspects of your career. Limits on networking means that you won’t feel guilty for staying in the lab late when you know another event is going on elsewhere on campus. But, because you’ve already spent your networking funds for that week, you can feel good about skipping that event and focus on moving your project forward a little further than you would have been able to otherwise. 🙂
These are a few simple tactics that address some of the main reasons why some people absolutely hate networking. NOT networking is not the best option if you want to land that next great opportunity, so use the tactics listed above to help you overcome the things that hinder you from being proactive about networking.
You can always dive straight into networking, but if that is too overwhelming for you, try reconnecting, spending more time with well connected friends, visiting the coffee station or the break room more often, letting the other person do most of the talking in the conversation, and setting up a “networking fund” to avoid the guilt associated with spending too much money on drinks and networking events.
** Share any other strategies you have for those who are less outgoing! **
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