West End Training

Overcoming networking fear

If you asked someone twenty years ago to define what ‘networking’ was, they would probably have done so with reference to the transport industry, or perhaps the early computer industry. It is unlikely that it would have taken on the broad definition that we understand it in terms of today. Networking is now big business, and you are in the minority if you are not doing it.

Networking is a growing trend; not just for large companies, but increasingly for small and medium sized companies. According to a survey conducted by NatWest Small Business Research in 2002, over two-thirds of owners of small businesses are now members of one or more business or trade associations, networks or clubs, and meet regularly to share their experiences and ideas.

However, despite the huge prevalence of networking associations and opportunities, many business people are still reluctant to engage in networking, believing that it is an unnecessary part of business life. Even if people do recognize the need to network, they are often still reluctant to do it for various reasons.

Such reasons often prove to be extremely superficial: lack of time and a perception of events as useless, full of salespeople, and of no use for business. What these reasons often conceal is an underlying fear of networking. It is not an easy thing to undertake; what rational person wants to put themselves into a room of strangers, have to make conversation with them and actually enjoy it? Networking pushes us beyond our ‘comfort zone’ and forces us to confront our most deep-seated social fears.

However, as with many things in life, pushing ourselves to leave the ‘comfort zone’ can be far too beneficial to us not to do it. Networking is such an important part of business life that it must be embraced, and fears overcome. This overcoming is not actually as difficult as it may seem. We simply need to break the overall fear down and discover what it actually is that we specifically fear about networking.

The first and most common fear, is having to meet strangers. Certainly it is not the easiest thing to do, but it is something we normally have to do on a daily basis when we walk into a shop, exchange a word with someone on the street, buy a ticket on the train or pay for petrol. Meeting strangers is something we frequently do, but in the majority of cases we would not even consider these people to be strangers. Why not see strangers at networking events not as strangers, but as friends you have not yet met?

Another fear that many people have is the fear of making a fool of themselves. This is a fear commonly held, not just in this situation, but is actually quite a self conscious fear. What really does constitute ‘making a fool’ of yourself? Perhaps saying the wrong thing, falling over, spilling a drink? If we feel we have made a fool of ourselves in a situation, it is often something only perceived by ourselves; others usually do not even notice. As it is such a frequent fear, other people are usually far more concerned of making a fool of themselves to take any notice of a slight mistake we might make.

The next common fear often cited is a concern with what to say. This can be easily overcome, with a little preparation, and by using small talk. Prepare what you are going to say to open a conversation before you go to the event. A simple ‘hello, I’m Joe Bloggs, do you mind if I join you?’ will be perfectly sufficient. Or how about ‘Can I introduce myself?’ Rather than worrying about what you are going to say, try to act as naturally as possible, asking questions of the person you are speaking to. By asking questions and engaging in small talk, you will find the conversation flows naturally. Try to see this conversation as the same as one of the many you will have in a day with family, friends, work colleagues, or the man in the shop where you bought your paper this morning.

We all have a concern with coming across as interesting, but in a networking situation it seems to be exaggerated for many people. However, to come across as an interesting person does not require you to act like the world’s greatest comedian with a plethora of witty stories and comments. Instead, it is just as easy to come across as interesting by asking interested questions and displaying keen interest in what people are saying. You can also come across as interesting by thinking carefully about how you present yourself and what you do. Instead of introducing yourself as ‘a bank manager’ or ‘a sales and marketing manager’ why not put it ‘I help my clients to….’? It will make a much more striking first impression.

Another concern is with not knowing how to finish a conversation and move off. Again, as with not knowing what to say, this can be overcome by preparation. Think of an easy sentence to finish off with; all that is required is a simple ‘it has been a pleasure speaking to you all, I hope to see you all again soon’. Every conversation has natural breaks in it, so take advantage of one of these to make your exit politely. With practice, you will become an expert at spotting these and timing your exit from the conversation to perfection.

As you can see, many of the fears associated with networking can be overcome, most of all with a positive attitude. Networking events are to be enjoyed, not just suffered for the sake of business. Many people make firm friends at networking events, and not just business contacts. With some preparation, and practice, networking can become a good experience and not something to be feared.

Top Tips to overcoming fear

• A positive attitude
• See it as something to be enjoyed, not suffered
• Strangers are friends you have not yet met
• Prepare well
• Ask lots of questions
• Don’t worry about making a fool out of yourself – no one else will!
• Introduce yourself in an interesting and different way
• Be open to the possibilities networking can bring.

West End Training offers a one-day ‘Networking and Conversation Techniques’ course, developing an effective networking technique and conversation skills.