Do you know what I’m not looking forward to coming back when we return to (almost) normal? Networking events. Especially as they’ll likely be smaller and ‘more intimate’ which means a lot fewer chances to hide in a corner waiting for the nightmare to end.
If you’re reading this and nodding along, you’re probably as anxious as I am about networking. However, as my leadership lecturer kept reminding me: One of the MOST important skills you can have in business is the ability to network.
When he said that, I would roll my eyes while hidden away in the corner of the lecture hall. Sure. But, he’s right and deep down I knew that. So, I’m making it my mission to start networking more and learning to conquer my anxiety along the way. Here are six ways to get over the dreaded networking anxiety.
1. Challenge your negative thoughts
Do you know what us anxious people are really good at? Cognitive distortions. We can often fall into the trap of fortune-telling (thinking we know the future), all-or-nothing thinking, and catastrophising. Unfortunately, it’s just the way our brains are wired. However, the first step to removing anxiety from a situation is to stand up and confront those negative thoughts. Challenge them. Ask yourself, “Why do I think that?” and then try to find another way of interpreting the situation. Here’s an example:
Negative thought: “I’m definitely gonna mess things up and say something dumb.”
This is a perfect example of fortune-telling. How do you know you’re going to mess it up? Can you see into the future? Do you know exactly how this is going to play out? Challenge yourself to answer those questions. Consider looking at it in a different way, too. My favourite is:
If I mess it up and say something dumb, then oh well. I said something dumb. Unless I punch someone in the face and run off screaming with my skirt up over my head, I very much doubt anyone will remember if I do something not quite perfect anyway.
2. Start small (and online)
Now is the perfect time to start small when it comes to networking because all of those dreaded events have gone online. If you’re not totally Zoomed out thanks to work meetings and quizzes with the family, then it’s time to book yourself into some virtual networking sessions. However, if this is too big a step to start, then let’s scale it back even further.
Why not get involved in conversations on social media? Join networking groups on Facebook, engage in discussions on LinkedIn, find your tribe on Twitter. There are plenty of opportunities to network with practically zero anxiety because you’re hiding behind a computer or phone screen.
BUT (and this is a big but), don’t settle. Once you’re comfortable networking on social media, ladder up to those virtual networking events. Find one with lots of people if you want to hide in the Zoom corner and observe to start. Once you’ve seen how these things play out, ladder up again to smaller meetings where you can have your say.
3. Practice in the mirror
If you’ve ever played The Sims, then you’ll know one of the main ways to build up charisma is to talk to yourself in the mirror. This isn’t a trick reserved solely to get promotions in a video game; this does actually work. Part of our anxiety comes from the unknown, especially if we’re not used to putting ourselves out there and talking to people. So, start chatting with the best friend you’ll ever have: You.
Some people also recommend videoing yourself talking, but I’m not 100% sold on this. If you’re anything like me, you’ll end up rewatching those videos so many times you’ll hate the sight of your own face. “Ew, why does my nose do that when I smile?” At least with the mirror, you can practice talking naturally without having to over-analyze every part of your face afterwards.
The more you practice, the less it becomes such a ‘great unknown,’ and you’ll begin to relax into yourself a bit more. A word of warning though: Always tell whoever you live with that this is what you’re going to do, unless you want your husband walking in thinking that you’ve finally cracked. I learnt this the hard way.
4. Make a song and dance about it
Not long after I passed my driving test, I was back on the phone to my driving instructor begging for more lessons. I was SO anxious about driving and refused to set foot in my car. He offered to take me out one last time, so that he could teach me some tricks to get over this anxiety. It was here I learnt one of my favourite ever techniques… Singing.
In fact, singing and dancing can create a boost of endorphins that help combat stress and anxiety, especially in negative situations. Of course, I’m not saying you should stroll into your networking event dressed as a Flapper girl and belting out tunes from Chicago. But, you should definitely try to boost your endorphins before attending.
Dance around the house while you’re getting ready, sing in the car on the way there. You’ll naturally want to smile as those happy hormones whizz through your body, and you should also feel more relaxed. Plus, who doesn’t want to sing and dance all the time?
5. Avoid awkward silences
Is there anything as deafening as an awkward silence? It doesn’t matter how confident you are, those kinds of silences can make you doubt everything you ever thought you knew about you as a person. “Am I just that uninteresting? Why can’t I think of anything to say? OH MY GOD, I’M DYING HERE.” Before you know it, you’re in your own head so much that you missed the other person walking off and finding someone less awkward to talk to.
So, what do we do about this? We go back to that mirror and we practice some silence fillers. Arm yourself with a list of questions you can ask or things you can say if the silence is creeping in. That way, you won’t have to resort to blurting out the first thing that comes into your head, “So… Do you like cheese?” And you’ll avoid your inner monologue screaming at you for being such an idiot.
Sometimes, you will just get awkward people and that’s okay. If someone is shutting down your questions, then don’t see it as something that reflects poorly on you. It may even be that they’re also riddled with anxiety and are fearful of saying the wrong things. Be patient, try to get a conversation going, but know it can never be forced.
6. Remember your why
Finally, let’s just step back for a minute and consider why we’re putting ourselves through this nightmare they call networking. There must be a reason as to why you want to network. Perhaps it’s because you’re looking to move up the career ladder and need new connections. Maybe you’re hoping to turn some of these strangers into clients.
Before you head into the event, spend a little bit of time reflecting on your why. Who are you? What are you doing here? Why are you networking? Imagine the positive possibilities that could come out of this. Think about your goals and aspirations… What if one of those goals is about to be reached right here? With just one connection? That’s all it takes.
Look at it this way, if you really hate it then you can leave. You can walk out the door, get back into your car, drive home and never look back. The worst thing that can happen is there might be a couple of awkward silences or you might say something silly that no one will ever remember. But the best things that can happen when you make new connections… Well, that’s limitless really.
Bex Spiller is an anxious entrepreneur, MBA scholar & business writer. Her areas of expertise include business psychology, mental health, and leadership which she talks about all the time on her Instagram @BexTheBusinessNerd.