From Anxious to Assured: How to Network with Confidence When You're Socially Anxious 

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...the work that you put in and the patience that you exercise with yourself will pay dividends

We’ve all been there before: that feeling when you walk into a room and you don’t recognize anyone. It seems like everyone else is in conversation and has glanced at you disapprovingly because you are standing in the doorway, or making your way in the room, alone. You hope that someone you know will show up soon so you don’t feel so isolated.

Or maybe you felt obligated to accept that Zoom Holiday Happy Hour invite from a colleague, board member, or client, and now you’re staring at the virtual Brady Bunch screen hoping you remembered to put your mic on mute to keep your audible sigh to yourself.

Let’s be real — for most of us, networking is hard.

The pandemic seemed to ease that stress a bit as Zoom networking took over, relieving some of the pressure of actually standing in front of someone. “You mean I don’t have to wear the nametag, fake a smile, and nod my head for an hour at networking events?” was a celebrated mentality for scores of people.

But as we’re seeing in-person events again, with Zoom meetings likely not ever going away completely, this is a wonderful time to stop and re-evaluate your approach to why you detest networking events so much: social anxiety.

Signs that Social Anxiety Is Hampering Your Networking

Let’s break down some signs that you may be struggling with social anxiety and then we’ll cover what you can actually do about it, something we’ll call Turnaround Tactics:

1. You’re the last to arrive and the first to leave

Are you a fan of the old Irish goodbye where you namelessly disappear into the night without notice? Do your exits resemble something Batman would be jealous of?

When it comes to anxiety, our natural response is avoidance. The problem with avoidance is that while it momentarily feels amazing, it ultimately makes it ten times harder to show up the next time. However, if we can push ourselves ever so slowly (like showing up 10 minutes late instead of an hour late), we build up our social muscles, getting stronger and stronger every time.

Turnaround Tactic:

Set a time and conversation quantity/quality goal for yourself. Show up earlier and challenge yourself to introduce yourself or say hello to at least 5-10 people, minimum. This way you’re distracting yourself from the goalless void of being and you have a true purpose for being there. If you don’t hit your quantity of people, have any of the conversations that you had lead to a meaningful follow-up? Count that as two people.

2. Your body physically reacts

Our body can powerfully indoctrinate fear into us and it impacts our behavior. Surely if your stomach is churning, your armpits are sweating, and your heart is racing, you don’t have to go to the event, right? Nobody will notice you weren’t there, right? Cue our inner eight-year-old asking the school nurse to go home when we had to give a speech in class.

Teach your body that it is not the boss of you. You can show up and still be physically anxious. The two can co-exist and eventually, the body typically relinquishes in the fight. As your brain sees that you’re surviving when you’re socializing, those physical cues often dissipate with time. Even if they stick around, you can name it, normalize it, overcome it, and do whatever you need to do to let your body do its thing.

Turnaround Tactic:

Mental reactions and physical stimuli are manageable and changeable. Once you start noticing the physical stimulus (heart rate, nervousness, mental retreat, etc.) do two things: tell yourself “I’m going to stop thinking like this” and recognize that the reaction to the trigger of going to the event is positive instead of negative. Tell yourself that those signs mean you’re about to do something amazing, you’ll grow for the better, and you could likely meet your next big client or referral.

3. You get tongue-tied

When we’re meeting new people, it’s not uncommon for our brain to go blank. It’s a large cognitive load to try and remember someone’s name, ask them a question, come up with a witty remark, and try to make a good impression. It’s also tempting to talk about yourself in a lengthy or self-promoting way to garner respect in the introduction.

Give yourself compassion when you’re meeting someone new. In a relationship focused business, this is always an analysis paralysis situation where you want to say enough, but not too much, you want to ask the right things and not the wrong things. All within the first few seconds of the introduction. You don’t have to be perfect, as no one else will be either.

Having a couple of simple and unique questions at the ready as well as an easy to understand and remember description of what you do vs. just a title will go a long way. Instead of saying that you’re an M&A attorney, explain it this way: “I help businesses navigate contracts and legal issues when they’re acquiring a new company or selling themselves.”

Turnaround Tactic:

Think of a couple of unique questions that make the person you’re meeting feel important and that you’re not just another formality question asker:

  • What are you most excited about in your professional life?
  • What is the primary focus next year for your company? Team? Role?
  • What is your favorite thing about your role?

These are intended to replace the “What do you do?” “Where did you go to college?” that 99% of the rest of the attendees are armed with.

If you’re on a Zoom meeting/happy hour, pay attention to backgrounds, art, things on the wall, etc. if they’re in a home environment. Make notes to the side on who had what, send a follow up e-mail/LinkedIn request, and ask them specifically about the item of note. Something like this:

“Ann, it was a pleasure meeting you at the ____ Virtual Holiday Event. I happened to notice that you had a great piece of art on your wall, I’d love to hear more about the story behind it as I’ve been adding more artwork to my home office.”

The most important thing to keep in mind as you work on this is that it will take some time and repetition and it won’t be perfect right away. However, the work that you put in and the patience that you exercise with yourself will pay dividends for your business, your relationships, and your momentum moving forward.

*

Rich Bracken is a TEDx keynote speaker and marketing executive who helps organizations maximize their leadership and strengthen their culture and strategy through his presentations and curated content on emotional intelligence. He assists Fortune 100 companies, global organizations, and industry associations in ridding themselves of toxic culture, optimize communication and teamwork, and provides guidance so that each individual can live their happiest life, both personally and professionally. He also serves as the Director of Strategic Partnerships at Foundry, a Minneapolis-based custom software firm. You can learn more about Rich and how he can help your firm at richbracken.com.

Dr. Lauren Cook is a clinical psychologist, career coach, speaker, and author. She travels around the country (and from her computer screen) to provide education on how we can integrate mental health into our professional and personal lives. Dr. Lauren frequently works with law firms and companies to provide consultation services so that teams are implementing an evidence-based and culturally informed approach to mental health. Dr. Lauren has a private practice in Pasadena called Heartship Psychological Services where she supports adults, couples, and families. She specializes in treating anxiety, perfectionism, imposter syndrome, and relational struggles. To work with Dr. Lauren individually or to bring her to your firm, visit www.drlaurencook.com.

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