What do you think of when you hear the words, “networking event”?
For introverts, networking often calls to mind standing in a roomful of strangers, trying to balance a drink and a miniature paper plate with 3 grapes, a square of cheese and two crackers on it while pretending to enjoy yourself and secretly wondering how soon you can go home.
For some, it may even call to mind an early experience at the dentist.
Introverts, it doesn’t have to be that way. Honest!
Not an introvert? Forward this to your favorite introvert friend.
(Don’t have any friends who are introverts? You’re missing out. Introverts make the best friends, because they let me — I mean, one … they let one — do all the talking.)
Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you can’t go too far wrong with the following tips.
1. Use “feeling” language. That is, refer to emotional experiences when you speak.
For example: “I was intrigued by the premise of Breaking Bad,” “I’m curious to learn more about the candidates (e.g., in an upcoming election).” “It’s exciting that Tina Gilbertson is giving another talk at the library.”
The use of feeling words helps people connect. Everyone knows what it’s like to have emotions, so when you talk about them, you’re speaking a universal language.
If it’s a work setting, you can still use feeling words to connect.
For example, “I’m intrigued by these new developments in the field,” “I’m curious to learn more about your department,” “It’s exciting that a branch is opening in Springfield.”
2. Understand and use small talk.
If you pay attention to conversations between ANY two people who don’t know each other well, you’ll notice that nothing terribly interesting is put forth.
Maybe this is why you hate small talk so much: It can feel like a tragic misuse of time and energy. But something important is happening under the surface…
By offering banal observations anyone could agree with, both people are feeling their way toward each other in a safe, contained interaction.
Here’s a typical exchange between strangers:
“It’s cold out there.”
“Yes. It definitely is.”
“I thought it was supposed to warm up today.”
“Yeah, I heard that too. I guess we’re in for more of the same.”
“At least for today.”
“Hopefully it’ll warm up a bit tomorrow.”
“That would be good.”
“I think we’re all ready for that.”
“You can say that again.”
Small talk is not supposed to perform any function beyond providing a platform for social contact. Notice I didn’t say “meaningful social contact.”
This is why it’s so dull. The content is irrelevant as long as it’s non-controversial, and most topics that aren’t controversial fall somewhere between mind-numbing and just-shoot-me.
But small talk is necessary! How are you supposed to make new friends without it?
You just can’t go up to a stranger and say,
“Hi, I won the school spelling bee in the 5th grade. Have you ever lost a relative to gangrene?”
Instead, to initiate social contact, you start with something socially safer like, “It sure is cold.”
So just go with it. If it takes up too much energy, try putting less into it.
Smile and nod more than you talk. Smiling is king in networking situations. In fact, it’s so important, it should be a tip in itself.
Whether you’re looking for job opportunities or new friends, a smile is the most hard-working tool in your toolkit.
It covers shyness, lack of confidence, insecurity or fear. Why? Because shy, unconfident, insecure, frightened people DON’T smile.
So if you’re smiling, you look like you’re not any of those things. Get it?
Don’t be afraid of pauses in the conversation. You’re not responsible for filling them. A smile, however, can smooth over much social awkwardness.
4. Let go of the idea that you have to talk to be interesting.
If you’re a good listener, every extrovert in the room (in the general population, that would be the majority) is going to seek you out as a conversation partner.
You can’t both talk at once, and your listening is the perfectly complement to their (or should I say “our”?) excessive prattling.
Introverts like to think before they speak. You might find yourself thinking of a response to something that was said earlier.
It’s perfectly okay for you to say, “You know, I’m having a thought about that thing you mentioned earlier…”
That actually counts as a contribution to the conversation. Yes, it does! Don’t argue with me on this.
Even though it feels to you as if it’s too late, an observation about something discussed earlier can revive a flagging conversation and also help people get to know you.
You’ll be judged (favorably) on your willingness to share what you’re thinking, not on the intellectual merits of what you share.
If you don’t have anyone to talk to in a roomful of people, it’s perfectly acceptable to stand by yourself and smile at everyone who looks at you. Remember: Smiling = confidence.
Your smile will be read as in invitation to speak to you. Someone who’s on his or her own will gravitate toward someone who smiles at them unabashedly.
If you stand in the middle of in a roomful of people with nothing in your hands, you might look like a sleepwalker, or someone who’s doing performance art (“Still Person, Frozen in the Act of Not Socializing”).
While you’re by yourself, it can be handy to have something like a plate or a cup in ONE of your hands. Leave the other one free to shake.
Networking can be fun, even for introverts, especially if you seek out an extrovert to talk — I mean listen — to.
If I see you standing there all by yourself, smiling a greeting at me, I’ll make a beeline for you and introduce myself.
You’ve been warned.
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