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A few days after presenting to a group of exceptional college students I received very sweet, appreciative thank you note from several of them. One student wrote,

“…I had no idea what it truly meant to network. I assumed it was having awkward conversations in hopes of getting a job.”

Have you ever felt this way? You could even swap out the phrase “getting a job” and add in “finding new clients or prospects”, “meeting new and interesting people”, “making new friends” or “finding someone decent to date.”

Here’s the deal: if you feel consistently anxious about social situations, uncomfortable in your networking interactions, or exhausted or icky after leaving social events, coffee dates, lunches, or happy hours , it’s time to try something new.  Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Learn about you.  Are you an extrovert? Introvert? Or a little of each?  What kinds of people do you really enjoy meeting, working with, and having as friends? What types of social situations are comfortable (or uncomfortable) for you? Some self discovery time will help you weed out your strengths, weaknesses, interests, what and who exhausts / inspires you, and what makes life worth living.  If you aren’t living, working, and socializing in your sweet spot, everything’s going to feel awkward and straining. Life’s too short for that.
  • Become more particular. Time to get downright picky about how you spend your time and who you spend it with.  Saying a gracious “no thank you” to what doesn’t work for you means you can say an enthusiastic “yes please!” to what does.
  • Set intentions before every social interaction. Whether you’re headed out to meet someone for coffee or hopping a jet to attend a huge conference thousands of miles away, take a few minutes to write down (or at least declare in your mind) what you’d like to get out of that event. What do you want to learn, feel, and experience? Who do you want to meet or see in action?  How do you want to serve or impact others? Maybe you have no clue what your exact intentions are. That’s ok. Simply write or tell yourself you’re open to the experiences and connections that are right for you at this time.  This is spooky powerful because it’s telling God / The Universe / Whatever You Believe In (and your brain) to pay attention to what you actually want.  After that, it’s up to you to show up, pay attention, and take intentional action.
  • Experience the power of curiosity and questions.  Many experts agree that being interested (rather than interesting) is the key to being more memorable, likable, and a true networking ninja.  That said, start developing, collecting, and trying out questions that can help launch, hold, and expand conversations.   Steer clear of anything too personal or polarizing such as politics, religion, or controversial topics.
  • Try the prop (or ricochet) technique.  A woman I met last year spent several years working in London. She told me the Brits tend to open social conversations with a “prop.” Rather than address each other directly, they ricochet off something in the vicinity. For example, if you and Hugh Grant are going through a buffet line, Hugh will no doubt make a comment such as, “So, what’s your reaction to the state of this salad bar?”  This in turn might make you laugh for a second (that always feels good) and perhaps you might offer a reply, either serious, in jest, or (if you dig Hugh Grant) a tad flirtatious.  What a great way to break the ice! You don’t have to pry into the person’s personal affairs.  You’re just asking what they think about the salad bar.  Brilliant!
  • Learn how to graciously exit conversations that have “expired” or are simply not working for you.  Yes!  It’s possible to break away from a converstion that is no longer interesting, is pointlessly dominating your networking time, or is simply feeling unpleasant.  The key, however, is to be gracious.  Never blow people off or make them feel like they’ve been ditched. You can say, after a few moments of chit chat, something like this, “Gosh, Grizelda, it’s been fun talking to you. But, listen, I’d better let you mingle around and meet some other people. Take care!”  Then exit smoothly.  (Special caveat/hall pass: If you’ve been stuck listening to a self-absorbed windbag with dragon breath for an hour or the other person is getting creepier by the minute, no one would fault you if you simply decided to turn around and walk /run away.)
  • Do whatever it takes to be your best self.  I’m currently re-reading Gretchin Rubin’s book The Happiness Project.  What I’m re-learning are things like the power of: a good night’s rest, being organized, good relationships, and Tylenol.  When you’re happier, others are happier, too.

There are many, many tips, tricks and techniques for making networking – and any other form of social interaction – more pleasant and less awkward. My book The Intentional Networker is full of ’em, along with other good ideas that will help you attract what you want in business – and life.   Order here or at your favorite online book retailer.

Now it’s your turn:  What makes networking and walking into that intimidating room full of strangers easier and more pleasant?  Please share! I’d love to learn what’s worked for you!