I hear it over and over again: "I can't network. I'm an introvert." "I don't know what to say." "I don't want to brag." A lot of people don't like networking, but the bulk of them seem to be introverts.
I'm an introvert, too, and I'm also an entrepreneur, having to teach myself along the way how to reach out and build that body of interested people who support and buy what I do. To make it even harder, I retired in California, moved back to Minneapolis, waited a few years, and then found I wanted to start a business in a city where I had no business contacts and only one friend (a nun).
Business coaches stymied me from the start, because they would start by saying: "First, send a warm letter to all of your friends, telling them what you're doing and asking for their support."
Oh. A fellow coach wailed that she only had 100 friends on her Christmas card list, and I was awed by her popularity. This was an exercise at which I never excelled, because my Christmas card list was five.
Introverts, whom I often call the "Quietly Brilliant," are very likely to have one or two very deep friendships and a moderate number of pleasant acquaintances. This is dangerous for many reasons, among them the fact that those one or two deep relationships, whether professional or personal, can disappear in a wink of an eye, for such reasons as:
- You lose your job
- Your company moves and you don't
- Your supportive boss - who really liked you - leaves
- Divorce - and your best friend disappears
- Marriage (of a friend who disappears into a different social circle)
- Your BFF is transferred or moves
- Death of a close friend or loved one
- You move! As I did.
And you are stricken, dealing with loss, and suddenly finding that you need to find some way to search for and find a replacement for that Very Important Person. Where do you go? How do you do it?
If you don't have a plan and haven't been practicing how to connect with others, the poorest time to start networking is when you are dealing with loss. So start practicing now.
Here's my starting point for introverts who are "socially cautious":
Step 1: Find friendly people with whom to connect. â¨We introverts tend to look for reasons why it would be uncomfortable or even dangerous to approach other people. (Years of being told we're too quiet, we should get out more, we should speak up, etc., have made us wary of other people and their potential disapproval and left us with the idea that we are somehow odd and unique. In fact, we're over 50% of the population.)
Instead, try this simple exercise for a week or so: Suspend your sense of uniqueness and look for similarities between yourself and others. If they're similar to you, how can they be so unapproachable?
For example, I am not a sports fan. Repeat, just N O T A S P O R T S fan. But because I was a ballet dancer, I can relate to how passionate someone can become about physical performance and competition. As I was growing up, I read every history book about ballet, and followed the careers of prominent dancers, so I can relate to how concerned someone can become about athletes, teams, their history and their current challenges. Therefore, I have a basis for conversation with someone I might have dismissed as too different. I can empathize with the thought of what an injury does to peak performance (of oneself or of an idol), how draining and humiliating defeat in an athletic arena can feel, and so on.
We don't see a lot of friendly people out there because we haven't believed it. We tend to think we are unique. But they are out there, just as anxious as we are, and wanting to share their enthusiasms but don't, perhaps believing no one will understand.
Connecting personally with others is an important first step to setting up business connections that last.
Step 2: Reach out and empathize. Make a simple comment, not too personal but delivered with a smile, that shows you have some idea of what the other person is going through. For the clerk in a store: "It must be tiring lifting and scanning all those items every day." For the deliveryman, "What a lovely day for an outdoor job," or "This weather must really make your job harder." Short contacts, no further interaction required (although you'll be surprised at how often it triggers conversation).
Practice in these low-risk situations and it will become easier in situations where you really need to meet new people.
Step 3: Spread your thanks around as if they were fertilizer (because they are). Ditto for compliments.
Park the perfectionism you probably have as an introvert: keep it for serious stuff, such as your income tax return, operating heavy equipment, or doing brain surgery. It doesn't belong in human relationships. Be forgiving and empathize with little mistakes if they are not too serious.
Thank the person who stops to hold the door open for you, pauses to let you enter a line of traffic, the clerk who discovers you didn't take your small change or points out an even greater bargain than what you have selected, the person who asks about your recent health issue - all of these people deserve thanks for their consideration.
Try thanking a co-worker who completes a routine job for which he or she is paid. You may believe it's simply their duty, but anyone can become fatigued doing their duty day after day and being taken for granted.
Interestingly enough, being thankful openly makes it easier to point out those little mistakes others have made. You are beginning to develop "social capital."
These are the preliminary steps to becoming a socially confident networker; there are many more. But if you can't recognize how important this process is, and how easy it is, once you know the right steps, you will never start.
With networking, you can develop social capital, a bank account of good will on which you can draw, but into which you must make deposits. Social capital can bring you:
- Help and moral support when you need it.
- Increased inter- & intra-departmental collaboration at work.
- New business.
- A promotion or new job.
- Opportunities - more than you ever dreamed of in more areas than you now recognize.
- ... not to mention the increased warmth and ease you will feel in numerous social settings.
Networking is something we do - or don't do - all day long. When you discover that not networking takes at least as much energy as actually doing it (not knowing where to go for help or resources, dealing with anxiety over replacing a loss, and more) you are on the path to an expanded future. Because networking is a journey, not an action.