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What do when your anxiety sets in at a networking event

As we all begin to reconnect, here are some tips for getting back into the game.

What do when your anxiety sets in at a networking event
[Photo: samer daboul/Unsplash]
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We’ve all been there: a networking event, the first day at a new job, or even just a big meeting. We walk into the room and panic sets in . . . “I don’t know these people!” It even happens to extroverts like me. A lot of people think about connecting, but few act on it, especially today.

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There are ever more ways to connect, but there are just as many ways to disconnect. I’ve found that in all cases people fail to maintain the right mindset about connecting. No matter the location, the specifics of the meeting, or who is there, people are full of excuses not to connect.

Here’s an excuse I hear all the time: “I can’t move forward with my career goals because I don’t know the right people.” Not true. Every single person you know—regardless of their experience or background—can help you in some way. With a simple mindset reboot, you can drastically improve your ability to build business relationships. The philosopher William James said, “If you can change your mind, you can change your life.” I want to change your mind about networking. Here are some things to keep in mind as we think about reconnecting.

CONNECT WITH YOURSELF

First and foremost, connect with yourself. Are you an extrovert who loves gatherings and people, who derives energy from others? Or are you someone who prefers intimate gatherings and getting together less frequently? Knowing this about yourself is key to implementing the art of connecting in a sustainable way. When you stay intentional, you make the biggest impact, connecting and communicating with people without burnout or fatigue.

Esther Perel is a renowned psychotherapist and the bestselling author of Mating in Captivity. On her podcast, How’s Work?, Perel examines how the skill of navigating relationships isn’t something that differs much between the home and the office. Perel says that the narratives people develop from their childhood and family of origin—even though most people aren’t entirely aware of this—can spill over into their careers.

How we handle conflict, how we communicate, the way we develop trust—these are all skills that we tend to develop as children and can’t really escape when we walk into “work.” So, it’s worth asking: How were meaningful relationships built in your past? In your family? Simply taking a look at that and being open to the idea that our “work self” and “personal self” might be the same can teach us a lot about our relational skills (or deficits!) and what we might need to focus on or build to deepen the relationships in our work life. It might seem like “connecting with yourself” is something you do after work, but doing so in a business setting is essential.

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When you remind yourself who you really are and what you really want you’re far better set up to connect with those who will align with your goals.

START WITH WHO YOU KNOW

In networking, oftentimes we get pigeonholed into reaching out to specific people. But in reality, someone who is already in your immediate network might be able to introduce you to the correct person. One of the most powerful changes you can make right away to improve your business relationships is to change your mindset. Your existing network is your biggest asset—use it.

People are very good at coming up with a million excuses for failing to connect: I’m too busy; she’s too senior; he’s not senior enough; they don’t have the right experience. But more often than not, the hang-up is in our heads. The next time you find yourself canceling a connection because that person feels out of reach or you don’t want to “put them out,” pause to consider whether the real obstacle might be fear—fear of rejection, fear of closeness, fear of failure, or even just fear of feeling awkward. Then get out of your head.

“Who you know” also includes your colleagues, coworkers, and office mates. How well do you know the people you work with? How much of an effort have you made to have a genuine, quality relationship with the people you do business with each day? Connectivity across the organization and across networks not only feels good, it also spurs creativity. A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that the cross-fertilization of ideas among the people in your direct network offers a creative boost and can even have an impact up to the third and fourth degree. That’s a pretty remarkable finding: Idea sharing and collaboration have a ripple effect that can positively impact people in ways you may never know about.

BUILD LONG-TERM RELATIONSHIPS, AND DON’T SEPARATE “WORK”

My parents, who were serial connectors long before that was a term, were blind to the differences between coworkers, neighbors, friends, or family—people were people. Each one was worthy of connection, depth, and care. Each one was a human, someone who could add breadth and vitality to their network, regardless of how they met.

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But most people don’t see their acquaintances in the same way. According to a study conducted by Olivet Nazarene University, Americans, on average, recognize only 15 percent of their coworkers as “real friends”; 41 percent are just coworkers, and 22 percent are strangers. There’s a sense that we have to keep our guard up at the office, to not appear weak or vulnerable. But I advocate for developing real friendships at work.

Rob Cross is a professor of business at Babson College; he has studied the impact of cultivating social networks for almost 20 years. And his research also backs up what my parents (especially my mother) knew: The people who are the happiest in their careers have real friends at work. Cross’s research discovered that people who take the time to cultivate nourishing relationships are more likely to feel fulfilled—even if they work a mundane or stressful job. Think intimacy, vulnerability, and friendship have no place at work? Think again: Trust, listening, an open exchange of ideas, and feedback—these are all elements that spring from intimacy.

Developing a feeling of mutual closeness with people doesn’t always happen quickly; it takes time to cultivate. Whether you’re retweeting or writing by hand to cultivate the relationship—it’s not the medium that matters so much as the intention, the frequency, and the content. It’s the action, not the thought, that counts.

My mother knew inherently that connection with other people feeds the soul, and science backs this up. There is a plethora of research now that shows the role that dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and other “feel-good chemicals” in the brain are connected to positive social interaction. She also knew that having a successful career is as much a matter of relationships, personal and professional, as it is the work itself.

Cross’s research has shown that thriving—being at the top of your game in terms of your well-being—doesn’t have anything to do with the actual specifics of your work, believe it or not. It’s not dependent on your role or the amount of stress you feel, or the demands of your job. Instead, he found that it has everything to do with the quality and depth of your relationships, how you engage and interact with the people in your workplace, and even those in your personal life. This is an important finding to take into consideration the next time you’re feeling burnout, stress, or job dissatisfaction. When you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, maybe what you need isn’t less—or different—work, but better relationships.

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Excerpt from The Lost Art of Connecting: The Gather, Ask, Do Method for Building Meaningful Business Relationships by Susan McPherson (McGraw Hill, March 2021).

Susan McPherson is a serial connector, communications expert, and author of The Lost Art of Connecting: The Gather, Ask, Do Method for Building Meaningful Relationships at Work.