Professional networking is an important part of developing your career and personal brand. It’s easy to think these situations are geared towards those of us who are more outgoing and extroverted (and find it easier to pursue their career goals as a result). After all workplace culture still tends to reward extroversion.
But those of us who are less comfortable in these situations bring unique skills and alternative approaches that open doors in different ways. The crucial thing is to move past the anxieties many feel about speaking up in meetings or meeting new people at networking events. This is where networking skills and assertiveness training can help.
Professional networking can be a difficult skill to master regardless of whether you are an extrovert, introvert, or ambivert – someone who exhibits qualities of both introvert and extrovert.
Here are seven tips to help you meet new people in business settings both in-person and online.
First impressions count and making yourself approachable is a good start. There are three things you can do to let others know you are not a threat according to Jack Schafer, a psychologist and author of The Like Switch. “Our brains are always surveying the environment for friend or foe signals,” he says. “The three major things we do when we approach somebody are: an eyebrow flash – a quick up and down movement of the eyebrow that lasts about a sixth of a second – a slight head tilt, and a smile.”
Your body language is just as important when you meet people in two dimensions. While there are no hard and fast rules according to Erica Dhawan in her book “digital body language” you should make sure your digital body language is intentional and appropriate to the situation at hand. That means giving the meeting your full attention and not checking email or your phone.
It’s worth remembering that facial expressions affect our mood. Smiling can make you feel happier when meeting new people.
Show positive signals
Nervousness can trip you up at the start of a professional networking conversation, for example, starting sentences or answering early questions with phrases like “I’m not very good at meeting people…” or “I’m just an I.T. person”. This language makes you appear defensive and often guarantees the response we are hoping to avoid.
Instead, arrive at your meeting prepared with some positive conversation openings. You could try something like “I don’t know many people here, so I’m looking forward to it” or “This is my first time at this event. Have you been here before?” Both examples are questions so more likely to start a conversation rolling. Think about the signals a good joke teller gives out: “I heard the funniest story this morning; you’re going to love it.” Send the right signals!
If your meeting is online make sure to pause before speaking to allow other people to finish speaking first.
Remember your strengths
Play to your own strengths: often we put so much pressure on ourselves, worrying about what to say that we forget our strengths. Less assertive people are often great questioners and even better listeners (once we stop worrying about ourselves). People love to talk about themselves. So much so that research suggests self-disclosure is intrinsically and people are willing to forgo rewards like money to do so. Go into inquiry mode and let the extroverts talk! It can be a much more successful way of developing a relationship.
We tend to look around and think everyone else is an oasis of calm while assuming others can see our nervousness and unease. Stop! You are comparing your inside to other people’s exterior. You almost certainly look a lot calmer than you think – and others are probably more nervous than they look. Stop comparing yourself and focus on what’s important in your situation.
If your mind goes blank when speaking, just say so – people will appreciate your honesty and usually don’t mind waiting while you collect your thoughts.
If you’re attending an event and will have to speak to people, grab a newspaper and find a few things you can use as conversation topics. You don’t need to read the whole paper, just scan it for a few subjects you find interesting. Talking about topics with which you are familiar, rather than what you think you should find interesting, is much easier and less stressful.
Turn up early
Another good tactic for those heading to an event is to turn up early and get a good idea of how the venue is laid out – where are the drinks, the coats, and the toilets. Then, as others turn up, you will feel a sense of calm knowing more about the surroundings than others: this can instil more confidence to talk to new people.
The equivalent of turning up early in a virtual meeting is testing your technology including your camera and microphone. If you’re sharing your screen or a whiteboard practice doing so beforehand. Finally make sure you won’t be interrupted by colleagues or the doorbell during the meeting.
Learn to exit a conversation
As well as being able to start a professional networking conversation you need to be able to exit gracefully. This will enable you to have more mutually beneficial conversations and use your time productively. The reasons people find it difficult to end a conversation include staying in your comfort zone once you’ve broken the ice or fear of causing offence. To end a conversation, you could ask your partner to introduce you to someone else or explain that you’ve set a goal to speak to x number of people so need to mingle. Whichever excuse you use make sure to say thank you and follow up on any actions you’ve promised.
You make better first impressions than you think
Finally, we usually have a distorted idea of how well an initial meeting has gone. Most people underestimate how much our conversation partner liked us. This mismatch between our perception and reality is called the “Liking Gap” and was first suggested by Erica J. Boothby et al. in “The Liking Gap in Conversations: Do People like Us More than We Think?” (2018)
Boothby’s research suggests that this gap is present in both one-to-one and group and team settings. As well as affecting our personal relationships it can prevent us from collaborating effectively at work. Another finding was that people who are shyer displayed an even larger liking gap than the average person. So, if you’re lacking confidence in your conversation skills remember that you’re probably much better at it than you think!
You can build your confidence by attending networking events regularly which will help you overcome feelings like fright or flight that many of us feel in these situations.
BiteSize Learning delivers 2-hour, in-company training courses that receive outstanding feedback. If you’d like to have a chat about what we offer please message Abby at [email protected].