Taking the anxiety out of networking

Poor old Theresa May was recently snapped at the EU summit looking uncomfortable sandwiched between Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron covering their mouths to prevent journalists lip reading their conversation. Cue much internet hilarity at Mrs May’s expense.

The scene reminded me of many I have seen before, a networking situation where it is evident that some people are natural social networkers while others are clearly not. For a considerable majority, the art of social butterflying does not come easily, and these enforced situations can be a cause of real misery.

For many, this battle (for it is a battle when the pressure is on to step up and perform for the team/the boss /the firm or your career prospects) is made even harder by a condition that affects 3 million people in the UK according to a recent study – Anxiety. This seems to be particularly acute amongst the 20 – 30 year olds that comprise Generation Y, research suggests.

Being forced into a networking situation can quickly become a spiralling circle for anxiety sufferers; the more you try not to think about your anxiety, the more it preys on you. Throw in the pressure of expectation to network successfully and the effect can be catastrophic on the self and potentially damage your general confidence.

I am not going to lay claim to providing a magic bullet, but I do have some tips based on experience and many conversations over the years with those for whom the prospect of networking strikes pure dread into the heart.

If there’s anything I’ve learnt it is that if you cannot out run the beast then at least try to harness it. For many of those who successfully (on the surface at least) manage their anxiety in social situations the key is to reach some kind of acceptance, before moving on to the next stage.

See your anxiety in the context of humankind’s interminable battle with hostile environments – being in a lift with strangers, going in for a kiss when the other person is only after a handshake and attending networking events. Everyone has great advice (my own: a little pre-show preparation, some controlled breathing and a dash of positive thinking can really help), but ultimately it is only you who can find what works for you.

There are practical tips to ease your way through networking situations of course. My best advice is to study the conversation for entry points. Upon identifying the entry point, politely ask to join the group (rarely does this meet with ‘no, you may not’ as a response) and introduce yourself. So far so good – although at this stage it is where most people forget the name they have just heard (because we are so worried about what to say next we don’t listen) – now you need to contribute to the conversation. The daily drudgery of the desk can be dull and few people are as passionate about it as they are about their interests. Find out what those interests are. If you do not share that interest then be curious about it. Ask questions, listen the responses and be interested.

You may not give two hoots for tree-shaping or the opera houses of Eastern Europe, but if your networking spar does then indulge them. People love to talk about themselves, and if they are happily babbling away about their passion, then guess what? You don’t have to keep thinking of new small talk topics. And you know what else? That person will leave your conversation thinking you’re thoroughly good company.

Lastly, do not be under any illusion that ‘everybody else’ around you is breezily at ease. Much like the metaphorical swan moving gracefully across the water, there is a lot more floundering below the surface going on than you can imagine! Take the plunge, go up to people with an open mind and do what normal human beings have been doing for centuries – having conversations. You never know what may come of it.

Luan de Burgh of the de Burgh Group is a professional public speaker and presentation coach. More of his articles can be read here.