Usually the word “networking” is found nowhere near the word “introvert,” perhaps other than to say “these two don’t mix well.” But as someone who, to paraphrase Susan Cain, prefers “the lamplit desk to the Broadway spotlight”, I believe in the power introverts have to cultivate and even nurture meaningful contacts with all sorts of people. This excerpt from my new book, Taking the Work Out of Networking: An Introvert’s Guide to Making Connections That Count. (Simon & Schuster) details these powers.
Why Networking Matters
A contemporary definition of “networking” is to make an effort to meet and talk to a lot of people, especially in order to get information that can help you. … Wherever you fall on the introvert > extrovert spectrum, the need to network in order to develop new connections has never mattered more. A few proof points:
For all of these reasons—job changes, freelance work, geographical moves—it’s incumbent on most of us to make networking a regular practice. As we move through our professional lives, we’re going to need an ever-changing, ever-growing variety of people to call on.
So let me encourage you to approach networking with a sense of curiosity and open-mindedness that will help you cultivate meaningful connections without the obligation of constant contact. You too can build or grow your own brain trust: a web of connections to call on for ideas, opportunities, leads.
The Tools You Already Have
It may seem ironic, but I think we introverts have qualities that make us very effective networkers. One example: our interest in others exceeds our need to talk about ourselves. When I meet someone, I’m much more comfortable asking, “What’s new with you?” or “Tell me about yourself.” This gives me time to size up the person. A psychologist might say people enjoy my company because I let them have the floor. It is true that even as an introvert, I wanted to be liked (a default setting, apparently, for girls born in the 1950s). Whatever the reason, I always begin encounters anywhere but with myself.
Another essential for networking is being a good observer—a clear advantage we have over chattier peers. I’m forever wondering about who people are and why they are that way. What’s their demeanor, what’s their history, what animates or irritates them? I observe, and somehow, I remember and apply that knowledge.
An equally vital and underleveraged element in the introvert’s arsenal is the use of social media and digital communication to reach people in ways that may feel more natural. It’s frankly easier to connect with people both within and outside your company without the dread of working the room. Participating in social media, even lightly, gives introverts an advantage when it comes to staying in loose touch—an essential daily habit that helps us feel connected and empowered from the safe distance of our screens.Another mark of the introvert is the ability to be comfortable being quiet, which is often misunderstood. As a thoughtful and introspective teenager, my goal was to observe and eavesdrop on adult conversations. When my parents had guests over, I was intrigued by the sotto voce remarks they would make, speculating about the (unspoken) troubles they knew their friends were having. Nothing had been uttered at the table, of course, which led me to understand that human experiences run much deeper than polite company revealed. I began to feel like an anthropologist—the outsider studying the group with a cool eye, never fully joining in. I’m convinced that all of these qualities, which introverts seem to share—feeling like an outsider, being an observer, curiosity about the stories and situations of others—inform how I’ve made my way through life. (As one scholarly study put it, “An introvert who is silent in a group may actually be quite engaged—taking in what is said, thinking about it, waiting for a turn to speak.”) I think this ability to observe and assess are some of my best assets, and maybe they’re yours, too. Whether you’re shy, humble, self-effacing, insecure, or simply hate the stereotype of networking, I want to encourage you to make the most of your own personal style in order to build your own brain trust—to start from where you are.
My long-held theory is that introverts (and other unassuming people) are well suited to building a strong web of connections because of these distinctive characteristics:
These abilities—listening, observing, being curious—are wonderful tools for connecting with people. And none of them requires you to be in the limelight.