The Art of Networking: A Guide for the Secretly Introverted

BlogHer Original Post

Being a Gemini, I always considered myself a communicator and a natural-born extrovert. As a kid, I always loved being around people; I never was one of those types to hang out in my bedroom, listening to the Smiths. My birthday parties were always blow-outs--huge events teeming with kids, games and food. The more kids, I realized, the more presents.

Somewhere in college that changed. Sure, I did the sorority thing, which enforced networking, parties, and general debauchery, but I often secluded myself during the day in cafes. I told people that I needed to study, but really I needed to be alone. Today I find it daunting when I have multiple social events to attend in as many days; just thinking about them drains me of energy. All those dinner parties I envisioned myself having? I have maybe a half dozen a year. The more dinner guests, I realize, the more dishes to wash.

Of course I often wonder what the hell has happened to me; as I get older I'm learning that I'm not the extrovert I thought I was. I took the Myers Briggs Exam a couple of years ago and found it hard to believe, but it was true: I wasn't an ENTJ but an INFJ--someone who acts on feelings over logic, and someone who prefers to work alone. Though my job requires meeting lots of people, I find that after the calls and the meetings I need to have significant time by myself to process. I meet a few folks, have a nice chat, and then I go home--very tired and ready to watch Top Chef.

Don't get me wrong, I always start out excited by big social events. I had every minute of my time allocated toward some social activity last year at the SXSW Conference, but I found myself racing back to my hotel room by 10, ready to zone out in front of the TV.

I've asked myself, what the hell is wrong with me? I suspect there are many reasons for this latent introversion--that lame excuse of getting older, for one; lower alcohol tolerance is another. Also, I suspect that though I was not very self-conscious as a young extrovert, I was not very self-aware, either. I now prefer quality over quantity when I network, which doesn't always fit with that cardinal networking rule: shake hands, chit chat, exchange cards, and move on. I'm also a more efficient networker than I used to be; If I go somewhere with the purpose of meeting someone, I get it done, foregoing idle conversation with people I don't intend to connect with again.

I'm lucky that many of the events I attend are teeming with people that I already know; it's like the parties that you went to in high school--you can almost guess who you'll see, and it's always fun to catch up. But recently I attended an event where I wasn't buffered by my social media peeps. Rather, I was holding the flag for my industry and trying to make the case to a decidedly Web 1.0 crowd that blogs are where it's at. I went to this event alone, excited at the prospect of educating people and introduced myself to anyone within handshaking distance. Some were cordial and chatted with me for a few minutes before moving on. Others seemed more intent on sticking with their friends. Some humored me while I extolled the virtues of blogs, gave me a card and then said, "nice talking with you."

That night I did something I'd never done before and followed to the letter the advice I'd read in networking articles that I thought would never apply to me: If networking is a painful experience, set a goal for yourself, hit it, and then leave. I silently agreed to meet five more people, which earned me the right to go home.

After that night it occurred to me that networking can be very difficult, particularly if you aren't in your personal or professional comfort zone. I hear all the time from women attending the BlogHer Conference who are nervous about meeting other attendees. I used to think "P'shaw! Once you get here you'll be so glad you came." But I say this as an "insider", as a planner of the event, as someone who is constantly busy and only too happy to kick back and enjoy a drink with attendees, not someone who has never met any of the other bloggers in person and is waiting in line for a Yahootini. It's tiring looking occupied!

Interestingly I married a non-networker, which has given me a whole new perspective on this topic. My husband is a friendly guy and a loyal friend, but he doesn't walk across the room to meet people. He doesn't perk up the second someone introduces himself. It took a couple of years for me to believe that despite the fact that he didn't fall over himself upon meeting people, he had a good time. It took him time to accept that popping out of my chair to hug someone that I recognized in an airport, screeching at dog-whistle pitch, was not an inauthentic act. I had to explain to him, "Sure I'm getting overexcited, but I'm naturally overexcited."

Networking expert Diane Darling--whom I met while networking, not ironically, says that people who are not born extroverts are not doomed professionally. Among her advice in a recent newsletter:

Be true to yourself: It is easy to feel that we want to be more outgoing. For some that works, for others it does not. Introverts can be very successful networkers.

I especially liked this next tip, as one who often feels guilt for not wanting to attend every freaking open-bar event:

Avoid over-networking: There are many events both online and in person you can attend. Be sure to take time to network with a good book, the remote control, or even your kids.

And this bit of advice helps when you're leaving an event wondering, "Did I just underwhelm?"

Find out what people "really" think of you: It is important to know who your champions are as well as your distractors. We all have both. Invest in people who care and don't over-think those who don't.

And this tip addresses my guilt from the holiday season, when I failed to get out my holiday cards and wondered, will anyone ever send me a card again?

Reconnect: We all lose touch with people. For me, 2006 was a very difficult year with many personal challenges and I am still catching up. It is okay to be human. Don't try and reconnect to everyone in the same week. Take it slowly.

And know: even professional networkers don't always love networking. Even Diane admits: "Candidly, I find it a real drag to go to events on my own." But, she says, "It is always wonderful when I know there will be someone at the event or I get invited to join a table. Reach out to others. It is not as scary as you think."

I think a good re-cap of this advice is: Assume that the people you are meeting are human, just like you.

Jory Des Jardins also blogs at Pause, and Fast Company Experts Blog.


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