The Awkward Person’s Guide to Networking

By Alyssa F. Westring
January 17, 2022

Networking is often transactional and this type interaction is unnatural for most — but especially for those of us who feel awkward or shy to begin with. Maybe you take a bit longer to open up to people. Maybe your mind goes blank when you’re trying to make a good impression. Or maybe you feel the need to overcompensate for your nerves with false enthusiasm. How can you reconcile the fact that you should be networking with your equally strong desire to avoid the discomfort of it all?

 

Networking is often transactional and this type interaction is unnatural for most — but especially for those of us who feel awkward or shy to begin with. Maybe you take a bit longer to open up to people. Maybe your mind goes blank when you’re trying to make a good impression. Or maybe you feel the need to overcompensate for your nerves with false enthusiasm. How can you reconcile the fact that you should be networking with your equally strong desire to avoid the discomfort of it all? Try this.

  • Rewrite your networking narrative. The (often unconscious) stories that we tell ourselves about networking have the power to prevent us from taking the steps that help us create meaningful careers. But once we recognize what they are, we can rewrite them in a way that benefits us.

  • Explore what you have to give. Rather than avoid networking because you don’t want to be a taker, consider your role as a giver in the interaction.When you ask someone for career advice or support, you are actually giving them an opportunity to help you — to many people, that’s very valuable.

  • Find your authentic curiosity. Most people love to talk about themselves. Before meeting someone new, read a little about them, but do so with the goal of getting curious, rather than the goal of memorizing the “right” questions to ask in order to make a good impression. It’s a subtle mindset shift, but it can make a world of difference.

  • Play to your strengths and embrace your awkwardness. If all else fails, consider just calling out your own weirdness. Admit that you’re nervous, or fidgety, or forgot someone’s name.

  • Rather than pretend to be someone you’re not, find a way to embrace your perfectly imperfect self. People appreciate vulnerability and a sense of humor, so own it.

You’re probably accustomed to hearing about the value of networking. Whether it takes place online or in person, research shows a variety of career benefits come from developing and engaging your network: higher salary and career satisfaction, as well as a greater likelihood of promotions.

But it’s easier said than done. Just because you should be networking, it doesn’t mean you want to or will. The busyness of work and life is one reason to put it off, however, we often use that as an excuse. Sometimes we simply avoid networking because we don’t feel like being social.

For all but a small subset of confident extroverts, it feels uncomfortable, or perhaps even a bit slimy, to consciously engage in transactional behaviors. Networking is defined as “individuals’ attempts to develop and maintain relationships with others who have the potential to assist them in their work or career.” This type of interaction is unnatural for most, and especially for those of us who feel awkward or shy to begin with.

Maybe you take a bit longer to open up to people. Maybe your mind goes blank when you’re trying to make a good impression. Or maybe you feel the need to overcompensate for your nerves with false enthusiasm. If you are someone who self-identifies as a bit awkward in interpersonal situations, welcome! There is an entire club of us overthinkers, reticent schmoozers, and people who are told they can be a bit “too much.”

So, how can you reconcile the fact that you should be networking with your equally strong desire to avoid the discomfort of it all?

As a professor who researches and teaches career management, I’ve developed a set of tools that can help you, fellow awkward person, take on this very common challenge.

Rewrite your networking narrative.

The first step is to pause and reflect on the stories that you tell yourself about networking. Do you tell yourself that networking is something you’ll do later when you have more time? That you don’t network because it’s inauthentic and fake? Or that you don’t have access to an influential network, so there’s no point in trying?

The (often unconscious) stories that we tell ourselves about networking have the power to prevent us from taking the steps that help us create meaningful careers. By identifying and acknowledging your networking narrative, you can begin to rewrite it in a way that feels authentic to you.

Explore what you have to give.

One of the reasons that networking feels so awkward is because most of us prefer not to think of ourselves as building relationships for the sole purpose of gaining career advantages. It’s perfectly reasonable to feel uncomfortable trying to build a relationship with someone because of what they can give you. But that feeling is built on the hidden assumption that you are only taking from the relationship and not giving to it.

Rather than avoid networking because you don’t want to be a taker, consider your role as a giver in the interaction. I’ve often found that students and early career professionals don’t fully realize what they bring to the table, since they frequently have less power, status, and connections than the person they’re networking with. And, while that may be true, consider what you do have to offer.

When you ask someone for career advice or support, you are actually giving them an opportunity to help you. You are acknowledging their expertise and experience and giving them the opportunity to use that influence in service of others. I know people don’t always believe me when I say this, but this IS actually a gift.

That said, you have more to offer them than an ego boost. You are in possession of a unique voice and perspective they might not otherwise have access to. Reminding yourself of what you offer, not just what you need, can help you feel more comfortable developing these relationships.

Find your authentic curiosity.

Whether you’re networking at a cocktail party or sending a message over LinkedIn, one of the most common ways to be awkward while networking is to get in your own head about what to talk about. Fear of stilted small talk, long silences, or grammar mistakes can paralyze us from engaging.

Rather than trying to avoid these situations at all costs, I’ve found that refocusing your attention on curiosity can help quiet some of those fears. The good news? Most people love to talk about themselves, so you if you approach them with curiosity, they’re bound to feel pretty good about the interaction.

Before entering networking situations, take some time to ask yourself what you would really like to learn about this person and their experiences. Expressing genuine curiosity will allow the conversation to flow much more smoothly than if you’re faking it. This might mean doing a little bit of background research when preparing for a networking event.

You can read someone’s bio or latest tweets or research an organization’s mission and values — but do so with the goal of getting curious, rather than the goal of memorizing the “right” questions to ask in order to make a good impression. It’s a subtle mindset shift, but it can make a world of difference.

Play to your strengths and embrace your awkwardness.

As you shift your networking mindset and build your skillset, you’ll probably learn what situations and strategies work best with your unique quirks. Treat the wins and the fails as valuable information in order to tailor your approach to networking to your strengths.

If all else fails, consider just calling out your own weirdness. Admit that you’re nervous, or fidgety, or forgot someone’s name. Rather than pretend to be someone you’re not, find a way to embrace your perfectly imperfect self. People appreciate vulnerability and a sense of humor, so own it.

Networking may never be easy or fun, but there’s plenty of evidence that it’s important. Rather than opting out or postponing it indefinitely, explore your resistance and find a way through or around it. And then, encourage others in your life to do the same – chances are they feel just as awkward as you.

 

 

Alyssa F. Westring is the Vincent de Paul Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship at DePaul University’s Driehaus College of Business. She is the co-author of Parents Who Lead. Follow her on Twitter at @alyssawestring.

 

Copyright 2021 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

 

 

 

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