Networking for introverts (and other anti-schmoozers)

Introverts rarely see themselves as natural networkers. They are inner oriented, think before they speak, energize by being alone, guard their privacy, and prefer one-on-one conversations.

Even some extroverts, who are externally focused, love to talk, energize with others, enjoy public sharing, and prefer group conversations, are uncomfortable networkers.

A common reason is that networking is often associated with schmoozing with strangers, working a room, manipulating others, and exchanging as many business cards as possible without forming true connections.

Like it or not, networking helps you reach your full potential, gain access to opportunities, grow your business, get the promotion, accomplish goals faster, lead others, and stay engaged in your work. Because networking is important, introverts and those who dread it still need to do it. You can redefine the process and do it on your own terms so it becomes more palatable.

Networking does not have to be selfish, phony, conniving, political, or terribly time consuming. It simply involves making connections and cultivating relationships with a variety of people, one person at a time, to create mutually beneficial outcomes.

Within your network, you share information, make introductions, exchange referrals, provide recommendations, and return favors. While there might be some quid pro quo, the best approach is to build your network before you need it and give more to others than you take from them.

Networking can actually be fun if you know how to use your strengths, tendencies and preferences. You don’t need to be a fabulous talker or charming comedian to be a great networker. You don’t have to be an extrovert to enjoy the process.

As an introvert myself, I admit that attending networking events to meet new people is not on my list of top 10 favorite activities. They can be draining for an introvert like me.

This doesn’t mean I’m shy or I don’t enjoy getting to know people. I love public speaking as well as teaching and coaching large groups. I love sharing a good laugh and great stories with others. But if I’m networking all the time, especially at purely social events, I get bored and wiped out. I need to recharge by being alone.

Introverts get a bad rap for being standoffish, dull, unconfident, withdrawn, arrogant or slow. But introversion is not an illness to be cured or a weakness to be overcome. It can be a valuable asset in networking if you know how to leverage it. It doesn’t have to get in your way of building a strong network.

The following are steps that introverts and anti-schmoozers can use to network on their own terms:

Capitalize on your preferences and tendencies. Being a deep listener and keen observer allows you create meaningful, sustainable relationships. When you are focused and fully present, you convey a genuine, trustworthy demeanor.

Listen for clues on what really interests the person and what you find interesting about the person. Ask questions about it. Show up early before the party grows large. Talk one on one or in small groups. Large group conversations are not required.

Shift out of your comfort zone every now and then. Be the first to introduce yourself, make eye contact, smile and extend your hand to another. Be prepared to share appropriate amounts of personal information and stories. Your asking all the questions and revealing nothing about yourself can feel like an interrogation. It’s hard for most people to stay engaged in a one-way conversation.

Preserve your energy. You need alone time to decompress and recharge.  Spending at least 30 minutes by yourself is especially recommended right before and after you attend a networking event.

Instead of staying late for cocktails and small talk, give yourself permission to leave in an hour or two. Just get to know a few interesting folks, connect with the host, speaker or other key persons, and exchange contact information before you take off.

Think about what you can offer and give it generously. When you strive to contribute value to those you know, networking feels more purposeful and less political. Those you help are more willing to help you in return.

If someone is seeking opportunities outside your area, offer to connect him with those who can provide what he needs. Ideally, the connection should benefit both parties. Recommend books, movies, music and restaurants. Share your industry knowledge.

Join organizations that interest you and become an active participant. Get on the board, volunteer to plan an event, or serve as a formal speaker or facilitator. Having a specific role at the event makes networking easier.

Follow up with those you meet and cultivate your connections.  Build relationships of different types, constantly and consistently. While it’s important to have close relationships, weaker connections also come in handy. People you rarely see can still offer critical information and open doors for you.

Maintaining your network does not have to take huge amounts of time. For your strong connections, you could meet one on one for coffee, brunch, lunch, happy hour or dinner every month or so to maintain ties. For your weaker connections, you could send a short email or make a quick telephone call once or twice a year to stay in touch. Share photos of your travels and special occasions or provide news on major changes in your life.

Start with those you know. Social media like LinkedIn and Facebook help you find people, keep your contacts updated, and revive and preserve ties. While I am still not on Facebook, I joined LinkedIn three months ago and used it to reconnect with people I had lost touch with 10 years ago. I met with three of them to catch up, share news, and have lunch together.

Reach out to new people, focusing on topics of mutual interest. Is there something about the person that you admire or inspires you? Did you hear them speak at an event or teach a class? Make contact, invite them to an event, or ask to meet them over coffee. Don’t take it personally if they can’t make time for you.

* * *

Genuine networking is not about people taking advantage of others. It’s about people building connections, cultivating relationships, and helping out each other.


# # #

Photo by: Trebor Scholz