You've probably heard the trite old saying, "It's not what you know; it's who you know." It might not surprise you, then, that according to most estimates, 70 percent of all jobs are obtained through people you know. I can personally attest to that statistic as I am part of that 70 percent. Several years ago, I was looking for a job when a friend and former coworker of mine mentioned that she knew about a personnel counselor position that was opening up at Mennonite Mission Network. I wasn't super familiar with Mission Network, but the position sounded similar to the kind of work I hoped to do in a higher ed setting. Before the opening was even posted, I was Leslie Knope-ing the website and tailoring my resume. One thing led to another, and here I am, LIVING MY BEST LIFE. So, take it from me: Networking works. Of course, networking shouldn't just be reserved for times when you're a job seeker. There are always reasons to expand your network, and looking for employment is just one of them.
Still, as an introvert, I've always kind of cringed when I've heard or used the word network—it almost feels like a swear. I think Dumbledore (a fellow introvert, btw) was onto something when he said, "Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself." Once you get over the word "networking," it's actually not so scary. Unfortunately, introverts are often at a disadvantage when it comes to networking simply because 1) they prefer quality over quantity in their friends and connections, and 2) networking is something that happens in the external world (whereas introverts prefer to focus energy on their inner world).
I've never gone to something billed exclusively as a "networking event" (gag, barf, vomit), but I have definitely attended conferences, retreats, seminars, trainings, dinners, etc., where people mingle and hobnob and socialize with other professionals. I'm preaching to myself right now when I say that sitting at a table staring at your phone (or only talking to the person or coworkers you came with) is an absolute waste of a great opportunity. Introversion poses some challenges, but it also brings some advantages as you move through the professional world—it's good to be aware of both.
Some things to think about:
1. Be present for others.
Introverts prefer to focus their attention on one person at a time, which feels really nice on the other end. Be the person who isn't scanning the room for someone better to talk to. The world needs more of these people! On the same note, networking isn't just about you asking for something from someone else, although it can be, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that. Just remember that you have things to offer as well! Focusing on what I can give over what I can get is the best way I know to get over my insecurities. The next time you attend a function or event, make a goal for yourself of connecting with just ONE new person.
2. Be aware of your nonverbals.
According to Marti Olsen Laney, author of The Introvert Advantage: How Quiet People Can Thrive in the Extrovert World, introverts' focus on their inner world can lead them to give less facial feedback to others. This can make them seem blank, aloof, or uninterested, which is NOT the vibe you want to give when you are trying to network! A blank expression can seem unnerving to others who are looking for a friendly face, but a wide perma-grin will seem too aggressive and flat-out strange. The author suggests practicing your "Mona Lisa smile," which (if your selfie game is on point) you might already have nailed down. The small, closed-lip smile supposedly appears congenial but not threatening. I'm always a proponent of looking less like a serial killer, so I gave this a shot. I tried it in front of the mirror and was pleasantly surprised that the subtle smile actually looked a lot more normal than it felt!
3. Embrace your inner Yoda.
There's a saying that if you want to know what an introvert thinks, then you haven't asked, and if you want to know what an extrovert thinks, then you haven't been listening. Introverts prefer to think carefully before responding. A plus in the introvert column is that a thoughtful response will almost always beat a stream-of-consciousness ramble; this is a quality that leaves a great impression and separates you from the pack.
4. Know your limits.
Contrary to popular opinion, introverts are not necessarily shy or socially awkward—they just prefer less externally stimulating environments. Introverts prefer to be "in their heads" more often than they prefer to be "a talking head." Why? Because it drains their energy. When I know I'm going to be doing some people-intense work, I know that afterward I will need to SCHEDULE TIME TO STARE AT THE WALLS. (Side note: Generally-speaking, extroverts prefer less alone time, but they get physically tired and peopled-out, too.)
5. Find a line.
Observation: People are more likely to start talking to strangers when they are forced to be physically close to them (just think back to every time you've ever flown on an airplane). One of the easiest places for me to strike up a conversation in a roomful of people I don't know is when I'm standing in line. It could be a line for the bathroom or for food or to get a seat. The next time you're at an event where you want to network, find a line. Say things to the person behind you like, "It's cold in here, right?" or "These crab puffs look amazing!" or "Did you hear them say what time the next session starts?" Follow that up with, "What agency are you here with?" and "What kind of work do you do?" Then you're off and running, easy peasy. Lines are the low-hanging fruit of networking.
6. The laws of supply and demand apply to introverts, too.
Introverts should remember two things: 1) They might be outnumbered, but they are not alone and 2) Introverts and extroverts need each other. Susan Cain, author of the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, estimates that only one-third of the population are introverts; therefore … we are in high demand! Extroverts tend to get all the good press in our society, but extroverts need introverts for all kinds of reasons: to remind them not to interrupt, to move past the superficial, to slow them down so they don't miss hearing the ideas of others, to work behind the scenes, to listen, and to focus on one thing at a time. Sometimes it feels a little lonely to be in the minority, but introverts have every reason to feel confident in what they bring to the table.
7. Small talk doesn't have to be pointless.
Introverts are much less interested in small talk and superficial pleasantries. Over time, I've become skilled in establishing deeper connections with the people I talk to, however briefly. I've learned that through small talk you build trust with people, so that you can get to the conversation that means something. Talking about the weather or a sports team or crab puffs or whatever inane thing comes to mind is just the starting point. Be patient and hang with people—good things come to those who wait.
8. Study your extroverted friends.
I happen to be married to an extrovert who is an amazing networker and salesman. True story: He made a sale last week to his dermatologist WHILE HE WAS GETTING SKIN CANCER CUT OUT OF HIS FACE. I'm still shaking my head in amazement at that one (and no worries—he's fine). After almost 20 years of marriage, I've learned that there's really no big mystery. He's just … genuinely himself. I firmly believe that we ALL have some kind of natural charisma and it's just a matter of tapping into that quality and people will be drawn to you. In turn, it's a wonderful skill to be able to tune into the personalities of those around us as well. So be grateful for the extroverts in your life. Learn from them, emulate them, get rid of what doesn't feel natural to you and keep what does. And then go home and read a book in complete silence for six hours.
Networking isn't my favorite thing to do. It still puts me in a place of vulnerability. But you know what? It's also part of being an adult and handling your business. Does it exhaust me? Yes. Do I sometimes feel fake? Yes. Do I always hate it? Actually … no. Have really good things come from me stepping outside my comfort zone? ABSOLUTELY! There will probably be an element of "fake it 'till you make it" in all of this, but the more comfortable we become in our own skin, the more naturally we can harness our introverted superpowers to professionally engage with others in a way that is authentic to who we are.
What this introvert has come to realize is that networking is just another way of talking about building relationships. Bottom line: Networking is a SKILL THAT CAN BE LEARNED! It may not feel natural as you're learning, but neither do a lot of things in life—like learning to read or riding a bike. We do those things because somehow we know that on the other side of the vulnerability and the struggle is a reward worth working for.