It was a sad, dark day when business professionals started to use network as a verb. Prior to this, network was a nice, friendly noun that meant—among other things—”an association of individuals having a common interest, formed to provide mutual assistance, helpful information, or the like.” Nothing at all nerve-wracking about that!
Times have changed, though, and now, the need to network is a nagging refrain from the moment young professionals enter the workplace, business degrees clutched in eager hands.
For outgoing souls, who view chatting up and swapping business cards as second nature, networking events can actually be quite pleasant. But if you shy away from making anxious conversation with people you don’t know with the sole intent of adding their names to your contact list, meet-and-greets are about as appealing as an unanesthetized root canal.
Perhaps it’s time to take back the noun. Instead of networking, start building a network.
Quiet Revolution and Quiet Leadership Institute co-founder Susan Cain, Chief Learning Officer Kate Earle, and Editorial Director Nidhi Berry share how they use their quiet ways to create a professional support system that is collaborative, mutually beneficial, and relationship-based.
Introverts may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while, they might wish they were home in their pajamas. While an extrovert might attend an event and end up chatting with everyone, an introvert might attend an event and have a few one-on-one conversations.
It’s really just a question of different styles. Introverts are seen as anti-social, but they have a different way of being social. They prefer to connect one-on-one and around an issue they find important.
When I’m at events, I give myself a quota of meeting one or two people whose company I really enjoy. Then, I can go back to my hotel room. That’s a far more effective system for me than just trying to collect a whole parcel of business cards.
I’d recommend that you strive to make one or two new meaningful connections with people whose company you enjoy and let the relationships build from there.
Don’t push yourself to shake every hand in the room. Only step out of character at strategic events when you really need to, then take a break to recharge. Return to your hotel room, go for a walk, or find a quiet spot where you can decompress. Since introverts draw energy from being alone, stepping away for a few minutes will help you come back stronger.
I am where I am because of the people in my network, and all of the professional moves I’ve made have come from those people. And my network is not intentional. I shy away from networking events—they seem artificial. The conversations are more elevator speeches; there is little real connection; and you collect business cards that collect dust. How many actual, live connections do you have that came from a networking event?
My network is instinctive and based on a few deep relationships. For me, building a network one-on-one has been an effective way to go. I have at least one deep relationship at every job I’ve ever had—some professional, some personal. As I built confidence, competence, and experience, I could discern (via a great conversation or a fun shared experience) with whom I’d want a personal connection. The opportunities come from them. And it’s two-sided: I stay in touch, informally and formally, and I remember what people are looking for and help them connect with relevant opportunities.
It’s important to make room for people who need a network as well as to find people to be in your network. And accept those LinkedIn requests unless there’s a strong reason not to!
To be a good networking partner, be willing to spend time with a person (even if you don’t know them). Of course, it’s not feasible to be friends with everyone, so the personal aspect drives the decision about whether you ultimately become part of that person’s network.
I go into networking events without metrics—no minimum number of business cards or handshakes for me. If I’m having an absolutely diverting conversation with someone, I’m happy to talk with them the whole night. When I don’t pressure myself to move quickly from person to person, I stay in the moment.
This refusal to pressure myself extends into an entire philosophy: I also don’t have it in my head that I need to be terribly impressive or that I must find a business opportunity with my conversation partner. The lack of pressure allows conversations and relationships to grow organically.
My goals in networking meetings are to have fun and draw out whatever is special about the other person. Is it a hobby? Is it their passion about their work? Is it their family? Travel?
If it’s a strictly work event, I figure out what’s special when it comes to work. What kind of projects are they excited about? What’s new that their team is working on? How are their team dynamics? I ask a lot of questions, which takes the focus off me while I grow comfortable with my conversation partner.
Luckily, introverts excel at listening, which is what people appreciate the most in building one-on-one connections. Of course, I have to disclose something about myself, but by putting the focus on the other person, I end up learning a lot and am able to follow up with them later via email with my own story if it seems a connection might be mutually beneficial.
Part of the fear of getting into a conversation with someone new is that I’m not sure how it will close. I came up with a few phrases I keep in my head for when a conversation is lagging, like, “Well, guess we should get back to the mingling!” or “I hope the next person I introduce myself to at this thing is as interesting as you.” We’ve all heard of the other standbys, like, “Time for me to refresh my drink,” or “I should run to the restroom,” but I prefer not to use these—they aren’t as kind and might not even be true!
And I don’t say what I don’t mean (as in, “Let’s do lunch” when I have no intention of contacting the other party.) I try to make sure my goodbyes put us in the same boat, in terms of “following the rules” and needing to meet more people, and hopefully make my conversation partner feel seen and appreciated—always a good note on which to end!