I recently attended the The Muse’s Coach Connect launch event in New York City and spoke with dozens of people about how to improve their networking skills. (And yes, if you missed that subtle shout out, Coach Connect is live now, and you really can book time with a career expert to help you!)
Everyone I chatted with had one thing in common: They all despise networking. Sound familiar?
Whether they identified as introverts and wallflowers, or just thought it was completely inauthentic, everyone had a question about how to make it less terrible.
I told them that there’s no big secret; instead it’s about redefining what “networking” means to you and then understanding how to go about it. Like the sound of that? Read on for my four most popular tips:
1. Remember That Most People Feel the Same Way
Sometimes people enter an event, see other people having conversations, and feel like an impostor. They think everyone else knows how to work the room and wonder how they’re going to find an “in” with these pros.
Now, imagine approaching the event with a different mindset. Instead of worrying that someone is going to judge you, remind yourself that you’re in a room full of people just doing they best they can. A group of people who also feel nervous and unsure how to approach a stranger.
Suddenly, instead of being outnumbered by people out of your league, you’re in a room full of allies—of people who’d be happy to talk to you. Of people who, if they stumble in their initial interactions with you, aren’t indicating anything other than that they’re not networking pros either.
Reframe networking as having a conversation—something you’ve done numerous times before. And maybe even as something compassionate, because that person standing awkwardly by the food is just as nervous as you are—and could use someone to talk to right this moment.
2. If Your Strategy Isn’t Working for You, Change it Up
You know something else that adds a lot of undue stress to networking? Forcing yourself to do it one way—when that way never works for you.
Here’s something I love about this tip: It’s pretty easy to implement. Maybe you hate contacting strangers on LinkedIn and asking to pick their brains. You know what: Stop doing that, and look for other ways to learn more about different jobs. Hate huge events? Stop signing up for them and instead look for opportunities to network one-on-one or in small groups. Feel like it’s too transactional? Stop treating it like an exchange where you have to get something.
If you can think of something you absolutely hate about networking, ask yourself if you can find a way to connect without doing that one thing. And if it’s a must (e.g., starting up a conversation with new people), think of ways you can make it less scary, like bringing a buddy along with you or warming up by chatting with someone you already know.
3. Understand What You’re Asking For
Most people hate networking because they're asking the wrong questions (in the wrong way)—and that usually leads to bad results, leaving you feeling awkward. For example, if you LinkedIn-stalk a complete stranger and say, “Can you introduce me to your CEO?”—no more, no less—you probably aren’t going to be successful.
So, first things first, remember that there are more things a contact can help with than hiring you on the spot or introducing you to the most famous person at his company. As Muse editor-in-chief Adrian Granzella Larssen points out in an article (which includes a “Help Me Find a Job” template): “Draft an email sharing that you’re looking for a new gig, and that you’re enlisting their help. Most importantly: Be specific about what you’re asking for—is it job leads or postings? Informational interviews? New contacts? All of the above?”
Whenever you feel like you’re having a hard time finding the nerve to reach out, step back and consider what you’re asking for. For strangers and distant contacts, give the other person options. For example, asking if a contact knows anyone who’s hiring—or great resources for people looking for jobs in her sector. That’ll make it easier for the other person to write back, and to help you start building rapport so you’ll feel more comfortable reaching out in the future.
4. Focus on How You Can Help
Networking feeling a little “me, me, me?” Empower yourself to flip the script and make it about someone else. In other words, you’ve probably heard the advice that if a connection helps you out, you should ask how you can return the favor.
But if that makes you feel funny, put the other person first before you even need a favor. Send someone an article you think he’ll enjoy. Reach out to a Facebook friend or LinkedIn contact who recently started a new job and ask how it’s going. Look for people you can support without having to ask for anything in return.
If you have an “I’m looking to connect with new people, and glad I can help!” mindset, you’ll feel good about helping someone else—and be growing your network at the same time. And then when you do need something down the road, you won’t feel half as guilty asking for it.
Networking may never be your favorite activity. But it doesn’t have to be fake and terrible. So feel free to find a way to connect with new contacts and stay in touch with old ones in a way that makes sense for you.