Conquer Your Networking Fears

Networking doesn’t come naturally for everyone. Learn how to break out of your shell and make the connections that can help advance your career.

12 April 2011

Have you ever found yourself standing alone at a networking event, watching other project professionals mixing and mingling? You know you should introduce yourself and find new connections — but you just can’t muster the courage.

It’s time to take the plunge.

“You’re more likely to find a job through networking than through any other means,” says Nancy Ancowitz, New York, New York, USA-based author of Self-Promotion for Introverts: The Quiet Guide to Getting Ahead.

Still, it’s a daunting prospect for those who aren’t natural networkers. Much like crafting the perfect cover letter, it will take some practice. “Networking is just another skill,” Ms. Ancowitz says. “Anyone can learn to master it.”

Ultimately, networking isn’t about if you’re extroverted and outgoing, says Ilise Benun, Hoboken, New Jersey, USA-based author of Stop Pushing Me Around: A Workplace Guide for the Timid, Shy and Less Assertive. 

In fact, networking really isn’t about you at all — it’s about how you can help other people, says Jim De Piante, PMP, executive project manager, IBM Research, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA.

“Networking is about relationships," he says. Relationships thrive to the extent that we are focused so when you meet people, put your focus on them. Help them overcome their apprehensions about meeting you. Make it easy for them to know you and to know how you can help them. Then stay in touch so that when the time comes for them to reach out for help, they will do so readily and without feeling awkward.”

Here are four tips to help you overcome your networking fears:

  1. Redefine networking.
    View networking in the context of everyday interactions instead of formal events, suggests Hong Kong-based recruiter Matthew Hill, managing director of Ambition, a global boutique recruitment firm.
    “Networking is not to be confused with needing to be the life and soul of the party,” he says. “Good networking isn’t always giving out 50 business cards at an event. It can be as simple as striking up a conversation with somebody who’s sitting next to you on the bus.”
  2. Be generous.
    “The reason most people do not like networking is because they’ve been taught that networking is a transactional exercise,” says Judy Thomson, Vancouver, Canada-based co-author of Work the Pond: Use the Power of Positive Networking to Leap Forward in Work and Life. “People think it’s about selling yourself. It’s actually about building relationships and discovering what you can do for someone else.”
    Focus on giving to your contacts instead of receiving. Introduce them to people in your network and don’t be afraid to send useful information like job openings, speaking opportunities and event invitations.
  3. Make it personal.
    “You don’t want to start right away talking about, ‘Where do you work and what job do you do?’ When you get to that stuff, a different part of a person’s brain turns on,” Mr. Hill says. “People get very professional and commercial. You’ve got to break down barriers, not build them.”
  4. Set yourself up for success.
    Plan your own solutions to common networking challenges:

    If you prefer one-on-one activities, ask a new contact to lunch or coffee, Ms. Ancowitz recommends. If you’re at a large event, schedule some one-on-one time afterwards.

    If meeting new people makes you uncomfortable,
    attend education events, where the purpose is learning instead of networking, suggests Ms. Benun, also the author of It’s Who You Know: The Ultimate Networking Kit. Or go to an event with a fellow (and more outgoing) project manager with good networking skills who can help you navigate the networking pond, says Ms. Thomson.

    If you struggle to start conversations,
    prepare some topics ahead of time and rehearse a few opening lines, suggests Ms. Ancowitz. While you’re at it, develop thoughtful answers to common questions like, “What brings you here?”

    If you’re shy,
    try volunteering at events, suggests Ms. Benum. With a task at hand, you have a practical reason to engage people.

The best strategy for nervous networkers is to approach it like any other project.

“Set a goal for yourself, such as having one solid conversation or asking for one introduction, and create a game plan with concrete steps to get you there,” Ms. Ancowitz says. “By doing so, you’ll demystify what it takes to become an outstanding networker.”

Learn more about effective networking.