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Networking for Introverts: How to Connect with Confidence

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It's common knowledge that you can't get ahead in your career without learning how to network effectively. Once you've got it down, consistency and follow up are the keys to connecting successfully. But if you're an introvert like many technical creative folks, or one of the millions of other professionals who secretly struggle with group interactions, you are all too familiar with the challenges networking presents. 

Inc.com offers up this little bit of amusement:

Question:  How many introverts does it take to hold a meeting?
Answer:  Two... as long as they both have laptops and Internet connections! 

You don't have to avoid group events, suffer the dread that makes you want to run or grit your teeth and paste on a smile just to get through them. You can start forging and developing valuable connections without all that stress and fatigue. It's time to reshape what it means to network, in a way that really works for you. Let's explore how. 

The Problem With Networking

If, like me, you associate networking with stress, dread and fatigue, it's a safe bet that your prior experiences have been as unpleasant as mine. 

Whenever I've found myself hanging out by the corner or the punch bowl, or checking my phone, I've always wondered: what makes us—this small group stranded on the island of misfit networkers—so different from all of those people who are happily chatting and laughing? Why can't I be more like them?

There's actually a very good reason you don't often find an introvert working a room, and it's not that we're shy. It's how we're wired. 

Introverts are drained by a lot of interaction and activity, where extroverts are energized. Author Susan Cain explains in her Ted speech that introversion is about how we respond to social stimulation. Where extroverts feed off a lot of it, introverts thrive in quieter, low-key environments. 

The good news is that the solitude we seek out naturally is a prerequisite for creativity. The bad news is that breakthrough ideas come largely from exchange and interaction, which create a combination of very different perspectives. Clearly we can't achieve our boldest brilliance in a bubble. Nor can we rapidly advance our careers. 

What Networking Is—and What Is It Not

What first crosses your mind at the mention of networking? For many it's a cocktail reception at an industry event. Or maybe it's the double whammy, where you're faced with your company's executives and clients at the same time. 

These associations are common, but they have bred misunderstanding. The very definitions we've assigned to networking actually help perpetuate our negative experiences. Let's expand the concept of networking beyond group meetings and social events. 

Networking Reframed: Reaching out to someone to make his or her acquaintance and exchange information, and then keeping that connection active through regular communication.

Based on this definition, you've been doing a lot of networking without even realizing it. Talking with family, friends, significant others, colleagues, neighbors and people at the gym or your favorite Starbucks can all have networking value. Making any contact that can evolve into a mutually benefit relationship is networking. They all "count" if you approach and manage these interactions thoughtfully and consciously.

So for now, stop feeling badly about hiding at the buffet table at your last industry event. We'll get to that.

Evaluating the State of Your Network

It's no shock that introverts tend to prefer one-on-one conversation over large group interactions. For most of us this produces a small number of meaningful connections as opposed to a lot of acquaintances. We end up with networks that are deep but too narrow to be of significant benefit to our careers.

Wherever you think you stand, it's key to honestly evaluate the current state of your network to clarify where you should focus your efforts.

Questions to Consider

  • Does your network run deep within your industry? Are some of these connections in the position to introduce you to new opportunities and contacts?
  • Think about potential career moves that appeal to you. Is your network broad enough to help move you into a new industry? Can you identify some strategic connections, or "bridge" contacts, that could help you cross into that industry? A strong network should reflect where you want to take your career, not just where you've been.
  • How many connections are in the inner circle, your most trusted go-to people? They're the ones you can always rely on to help, whether offering resources, introductions or references. How many in your circle would say the same of you?
  • When is the last time you actually connected with these people? Be honest: how many contacts are just acquaintances who may not remember who you are or how you connected? 

Analysis Time

Now take a step back and look at your answers to these questions through the lens of value. Your connections should be mutually beneficial relationships, and this implies that value must be created for both parties.

Identify in concrete terms those benefits you could share with your connections. Apply this to contacts in your own industry, contacts in other industries that appeal to you, and your inner circle.

Where Do You Stand?

You may find that some of your contacts just aren't positioned to help further your career goals. So you connected with half the staff from the company you worked at 10 years ago, before you switched industries and moved cross-country; you don't need to unfriend them. You do need to begin taking a more strategic view of how and where you invest your time in developing relationships.

Sometimes you may need to redirect focus from one contact to another who has the potential to be more fruitful, given where your career is heading. Who are your high potential contacts and are you spending enough time cultivating these connections? 

If you're now feeling better about the state of your connections (even without counting your mom and cousins), give yourself a quick pat on the back. But remember: your network is never done, no matter how broad and deep it is. Think of it like a vegetable garden that you need to feed consistently if you want to reap ongoing benefits.

If you're not so elated with the results, that's okay, too. You'll soon be pumping up your networking muscles and, with some new strategies for networking on your own terms, confidently and comfortably building meaningful connections.

Make Networking Work for You

We've already redefined networking as a broader concept that extends well beyond the conference or large meeting. But one more shift is needed. We need to reframe the notion of how networking happens—the act of interacting—to make it work for you. The goal is to get you ready to start making quality, career-minded connections without sapping your energy or spirit in the process.

There are many strategies that can help you navigate this strange new networking world but they all depend on the same premise: taking control.

Instead of reacting and responding to a networking environment, you can take control of your experience by proactively initiating and managing your interactions. Luckily, some fellow introverts have field tested a number of strategies that work. 

Before You Network: Prepare

Controlling and reshaping your networking experience starts well before the actual interaction or event. Think about the environment you'll be encountering. You need to prepare for seeing unfamiliar faces and for small talk to get comfortable with entering the room and engaging.

If you're heading into a group setting, like a conference or large meeting:.

  1. Find out who plans to attend and arrange to meet someone there. The old elementary school buddy system can still be a lifesaver. Having a friendly face and someone to eat lunch with does wonders for your comfort level.
  2. Get a copy of the attendee list or use social media to figure out what VIPs are likely to go. Who's on that list that you'd like to meet? Reach out via LinkedIn and arrange in advance to meet up at the event.
  3. Do your homework on any specific people you hope to meet. Think through how you could help them and vice versa, and anticipate a few different directions the conversation could take. You can also get the conversation started before the event via email or on social media. By planning for some one-on-one conversations, you can create the kind of situation you thrive in, even in a mass-networking environment.
  4. Prepare some questions in advance that can start conversation with anyone you happen to encounter. Think about what you might want to learn from them.
  5. Know your own story—whatever you're comfortable sharing—and practice it. You'll be less nervous when someone asks you about yourself. Katharine Hansen says knowing and telling our stories is also key to being memorable. Better yet, share humorous (yet tasteful) stories to make a positive impact and simultaneously diffuse stress.  
  6. Set a goal for yourself in advance to keep you focused at the engagement. You might aim to meet two new people, or one VIP. When you pose challenges for yourself and achieve them, you'll quickly build networking confidence.

While You're Networking

Cultivate One-on-One Conversation 

Remember that networking happens one person at a time. Take every chance you can get to talk one-on-one rather than in groups. 

Avondale's Stark and Stewart remind us that our aim is to create a smaller number of deep relationships, which is conveniently where introverts excel. You don't need a virtual Rolodex of superficial connections.

Find a Sidekick 

If you identified a friend who will also be at the event, set a time to meet up. If you're solo, make a point to strike up a conversation with just one other person to take the awkwardness out of lunch and breaks. (Just look for the people who seem the most uncomfortable in the room!)  

Take Breaks to Recharge and Don't Over-Schedule Yourself 

Introverts find themselves depleted when they're engaged in too much interaction for too long. When you can control it, avoid booking back-to-back social engagements. Be selective with your scheduling so that, no matter where you are or the time of day, you'll be able to focus. Prioritizing time to re-energize allows you to bring your best self to each engagement.  

“I get maxed-out more quickly than some, so it’s my responsibility that I schedule little mini-breaks throughout the day...It’s almost incumbent on me to make sure that I take care, in a very fierce way, in order to be able to continue to write and to be the person I want to be...” Singer/songwriter Alanis Morissette

Even the most fastidious efforts to control your networking environment, however, can't prevent occasional situations that drain our energy. Give yourself the time and space to break away whenever you need to. 

Play to Your Strengths as an Introvert

Listen

People appreciate when someone listens to them, and this is a strength of most introverts. We're much more comfortable focusing on those around us than talking about ourselves. Just asking open-ended questions and listening intently to what other people say can lead to meaningful, one-on-one conversation. People want solutions to their problems and you can identify those opportunities by listening.

Because we're great listeners, introverts are also often superb at remembering the little details someone shares with us. Use these as your basis to reconnect later (e.g., "how's your son doing in baseball?") and you will be a stand-out networker.

The beauty of listening as a networking strategy is that introverts naturally do it very well, and it also happens to be really good for us. Gallup researcher Tom Rath found that truly listening to another person—asking a question and genuinely listening to their response with undivided attention—has positive impacts on work performance and dramatically impacts our general well being.

Give

Look at networking as an opportunity to serve and give rather than receive. We may be more likely than extroverts to hang back in group discussions, but many of us like being a subject matter expert. We're comfortable chiming in when others ask for help or guidance.

With every person you meet and talk to, ask questions to figure out what you can contribute to them. Maybe you learn that someone is interested in a topic you follow; offer to send them a great article you just read.

Entrepreneur John Kobara suggests that this help first philosophy leads to the most productive and fulfilling networking. What resources would be of value to the last contact you made? Use that as a reason to reach out.

Reflect

Even the best memory can only hang on to so many new faces. Taking the time to capture notes when you meet people makes all the difference later when it's time to follow up.

In addition to basic contact information, reflect on what the individual has shared with you and record any interests and issues for future reference.

It may sound impractical to do this after every conversation but for me it serves two valuable purposes: I gain both the snippets I need to make the most of the new contact later on and a few welcome moments of solitary reflection. 

Afterwards: Follow Up

Networking is no different from your regular work in that follow up is crucial to success. Whether it’s emailing someone after a networking event or meeting them for coffee, reaching out after making any sort of connection shows you're trustworthy. Personalized follow up also improves the contact's chances of remembering you. The more pointed you are in keeping a conversation going, and the more you focus on their interests, the more memorable you will be.

Email is a valuable follow up tool for introverts because we tend to prefer writing over speaking. We like to think first and then communicate (which is also why we can tend to be passed by in group conversations). And because it doesn't put you on the spot to perform in front of people, writing is often less tiring than talking for introverts. You can use this to your advantage by liberally using email and even old-fashioned paper notes to develop and maintain connections. You will stand out from your extroverted colleagues, guaranteed.

One beautiful development for introverts over the past 15 years is the shift to connecting with people virtually, like on LinkedIn and Facebook, without ever having met or talked with them. But this doesn't give us a pass on live networking.

Virtual communication doesn't give people the chance to really get to know you. That takes personal contact. Do you have friends who are often irritated because you answer phone calls with texts and emails? Similarly, the extroverted contacts in your network will bristle and probably even assume your commitment to them is low. Meeting for coffee, catching up at an industry event or whatever works best is both worthwhile and necessary.

Conclusion

Too often introverts stumble uncomfortably through networking because we're trying to act like extroverts. Or, we waste time apologizing for not being more outgoing. It's time to be genuine, to embrace and leverage your strengths as an introvert. Armed with a revamped definition of what it means to network, you can start forging more valuable connections in a way that works for you. 

Want to learn more? 

  • If you're not sure if you fall in the introvert category, Daniel Pink offers a quick and fun assessment of your type.
  • This tutorial draws from Karl Stark and Bill Stewart's work, and their Inc. article offers great practical advice. In another helpful piece they focus on mapping your network.
  • Keith Ferrazzi's Never Eat Alone is a gem for anyone looking to build valuable business relationships.

Resources

Graphic Credit: Connect icon designed by Rohith M S from the Noun Project.

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