You can feel the sweat building. Your heart beats faster. And while you fight the urge to turn and run, a few broken words slip past your tightly clenched jaw. You wish you could wake up from this nightmare, but it’s real.
Welcome to networking. At least the way a lot of people feel about it anyway.
“The very word ‘networking’ often evokes fear or energy depending on how comfortable you are striking up a conversation with total strangers,” says Dr. Ann Marie Klotz, dean of campus life at New York Institute of Technology. If you’re one of those frightened souls, you’re not alone. Despite the fact that networking has been proven time and time again to be one of the most powerful methods of building a strong career, it remains a difficult chore for many job seekers.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Like many experts, Klotz says that the right techniques can make it simpler and less anxiety ridden: “No matter what your experience or comfort level with networking, there are strategies that can help.” Start with these simple steps.
Shift your mindset
One of the biggest reasons people dislike networking is that they feel like they’re begging or ‘using’ people. But that’s actually the least effective way to network. “Don’t approach networking with the attitude of looking for a job,” says career coach Lidia Arshavsky. “Instead, frame it as building your network and getting to know colleagues in your field. This way, you won’t come off as needy and can build genuine relationships that may lead to opportunities in the future.”
Focus on other people, not yourself
The surest way to suffer the jitters when networking is to focus on yourself and your own needs. Instead, flip that around and take the pressure off. “Approach networking simply as an opportunity to learn something about someone new instead of a mission to collect business cards,” says Fotini Iconomopoulos, MBA professor at the Schulich School of Business in Toronto. “People love to talk about themselves and are flattered by anyone who wants to listen.”
Begin with simple things
You don’t have to jump into big, scary networking events to tap into the power of building relationships. “Start with the low-hanging fruit,” says Arshavsky. “If you’re interested in working at a particular institution, begin by checking your LinkedIn connections to see if you already know someone there. Then you can ask your friend or acquaintance if they know somebody closer to the department you are interested in.”
Many people dislike networking because they feel it means acting unnaturally or forcing themselves to be someone they’re really not. But nothing could be further from the truth. “Be yourself and let your natural personality come through or you won’t be seen as authentic,” says career coach Elene Cafasso. “The best networkers are those that allow themselves to just simply be curious and human.”
And being your own, natural self isn’t just a matter of how you approach others and communicate with them. It should be the core of how you conduct the entire networking process. “Know where your strengths lie,” says career coach Laurie Berenson. “If you’re going to be super quiet and reserved at a large networking event, your time is better spent scheduling one-on-ones. Try asking people out for coffee instead.”
Joining a committee is one of the best ways to meet good networking contacts. “Most professional associations are begging for people to become committee members,” says career coach Cheryl E. Palmer. “By volunteering for this role, you will meet movers and shakers in the organization. As you share ideas in meetings, you will be able to present yourself as a knowledgeable professional and start to build relationships with the other committee members. This is a natural fit for introverts because introverts prefer to show rather than tell.”
Put it on autopilot
It’s not enough to do networking activities a few times here and there. Like most career-building efforts, consistent, high-quality action is what delivers results. So find a way to lock yourself in for the long haul. For example, if your college or university has regular networking events, don’t just ‘intend’ to go. Sign up in advance and tell others you’ll be there. That way you’ll get email reminders and have other people asking you about it. Better yet, assemble a group of your favorite colleagues and make it a regular habit to go to every event together.
No more excuses!
Effective networking is a journey, one that ideally should span the entire length of your career. And, like any meaningful journey, it begins with one little step. “Start small but just make sure you start,” says Berenson. “Then once you’ve dipped your toe in the water, expand from there.”