By Liz Ryan
When I was growing up, my mom had a cookbook called The I Hate to Cook Book.
At the time, it was bold for a woman to say that she hated to cook!
It’s much the same way with networking, today.
You’re not supposed to hate networking. But many people do.
If networking isn’t a natural strength of yours, don’t give up hope.
You can network as much as you need to – remembering that a big slice of the population doesn’t love to chit-chat with strangers any more than you do. Here are some tips to get you going.
While networking may be your least favorite way to spend time (network!), it does have value, particularly when you are in a job search (and, since few of us have "permanent jobs," networking is a necessity).
If you don’t love face-to-face networking events, don’t go on your own!
Take a chatty friend with you, and ask him or her to shepherd you around until you feel comfortable on your own.
Don’t be down if that comfortable moment doesn’t arrive and you end up sticking to your event-partner like glue.
Over time, you will get more comfortable mixing with new people, and you’ll venture out on your own – but, there’s no rush.
Often, at face-to-face business networking events, there’s a circle of people heavily engaged in conversation, laughing and chatting loudly, clearly old friends. Don’t even bother trying to bust into that circle. A big circle like that is a bad place to hone your conversational skills.
Go, instead, for the most lonely and forlorn-looking person in the joint. That person will be happy to see you. Don’t worry about a brilliant conversation opener: you can simply ask “How’s your evening going?” and take it from there.
It becomes much easier to talk to strangers when you don’t worry about impressing them with your knowledge of all subjects from Civil War History to German opera.
Instead, become the interviewer.
Ask the person about his or her life.
People love to tell their life stories, and you’ll become the person who loves to listen. If you spend a few face-to-face networking events simply learning about other people, you won’t have wasted a minute.
People remember and appreciate people who are good listeners – much more than they remember or appreciate people who drone on about themselves!
You can say “I’m not much good at these events,” to which your conversation partner will undoubtedly reply “Don’t be silly, I’m enjoying meeting you.” You can say “I find it tough to talk about myself” to which a person will most likely begin asking questions.
You don’t have to be sparkling and witty. It’s better to be human and real than to try dazzling new acquaintances with your gift of gab.
When I began networking in the eighties, I positively dreaded it. I didn’t want to do it at all – my boss forced me to go to HR events, as I was a corporate HR person at the time. I’d sit in agony and attempt to make conversation with the person seated next to me at the rubber-chicken luncheon.
Over time, I noticed something – lots of people didn’t especially love these boilerplate business-focused conversations.
So, I changed my tack. I’d ask “Where did you grow up?” That question has nothing to do with business, but I’d see a spark in a person’s eye as they answered, because people like to talk about their lives – and who can blame them?
Now, I mix business and ‘life’ conversation whenever I meet someone new. It’s important to avoid sensitive topics – for instance, “Are you married?” But you can ask a person how s/he spends time outside of work, what s/he studied in school, or what s/he thinks of the networking event you’re attending – all good topics.
Don’t be so afraid of networking events that you skip them entirely. Networking is great for your career and for your professional credibility. Take it slowly, don’t second-guess yourself, and eventually, you will have some great contacts, and maybe even a great deal of fun.
Liz Ryan is Job-Hunt's Networking Contributor. Liz is a former Fortune 500 VP and 25-year veteran of corporate human resources departments. In addition, Liz is the author of Happy About Online Networking and an internationally recognized expert on careers and the 21st century workplace. Find Liz on LinkedIn.