Have you ever had the experience where you introduce yourself at a networking event and have the thought, “that doesn't sound like me”? At a recent event, someone approached me and asked what kind of coaching I do. My answer was four words long followed by an awkward silence.
I was shocked by my own response. Coaching is something I’m incredibly passionate about. As my friends and family know, if given the space, I will jump into an hour long dialogue about the inner critic or the ripple effect of leaders unapologetically bringing every part of who they are to work. I geek out. But in this interaction, I made several assumptions about the interest of the woman who asked me and I censored myself. This made no sense. She engaged me. That probably meant she was interested and not “just being nice”. The truth is I was putting too much pressure on myself. In wanting to say the perfect thing, I said nothing at all. I was surprised and amused to see this old pattern show up because, in general, I have enjoyed most of my networking events this year.
A lot of people feel nervous about networking. We put too much pressure on ourselves and see these events as opportunities to impress others or embarrass ourselves by saying the wrong thing. We feel a huge disconnect when we try to smile and sound positive but our body wants to leave the room. We may even tell ourselves that the charismatic, talkative people at the event are wired differently than us, that we will never enjoy or excel at starting conversations with strangers.
So, for those of us who sometimes dread these events, why do we keep attending? Well, we want to be liked by others and seen for who we are. As social animals, we feel a deep need to belong and be accepted by a group. Another key reason is that we have been told so many times how crucial a strong network is. We all know people who found their next role or got their last promotion due to an influential mentor or champion who took a stand for them. What frustrates me about a lot of the articles promoting networking is that they have a sales-y tone. They focus on promoting yourself, making a lasting impression, exchanging business cards, and following up. That strategy doesn’t feel authentic for me because it is so focused on what you can get from the interaction rather than the mutual enjoyment of a new relationship.
Here’s my kind of networking. One of my favorite experiences in the world is hearing someone tell me about something they are deeply passionate about. I love the spark in their eyes, the movement of their hands as they talk, that sheepish smile when they realize they have gone deep into territory I know nothing about. It’s almost more fun when I don’t understand the subject because I can connect more viscerally to their joy. I try to create opportunities for this kind of exchange whenever I can.
Let’s drop back to the recent conversation where I became silent. I smiled and responded by asking the woman what she does. She responded in kind with a job title and nothing else. “What is your favorite part about that role?” I asked. This open-ended question invited her to share her passion with me. The conversation just got better from there as we stayed curious about the other person and really listened to each other.
What helped me reconnect to the woman in front of me was remembering who I am and what I enjoy. I engaged in that conversation like it was a coffee date with a good friend. I listened for how she felt, showed genuine interest, and offered to connect her to another colleague or find another way to help when it felt appropriate. Engaging with one person that night with generosity and presence will build a more meaningful relationship than trading 15 cards with people after superficial exchanges. And in the container of that connection, I was able to share who I am, what I do in the world, and who I’m passionate about supporting. It felt effortless. It felt fun.