Poor old Theresa May was at it again last week – snapped at the EU summit looking uncomfortable sandwiched between Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron covering their mouths to prevent journalists lip reading their conversation. Cue much internet hilarity at Mrs May’s expense.
The scene reminded me of many I have seen before, a networking situation where it is evident that some people are natural social networkers while others are clearly not. For a considerable majority, the art of social butterflying does not come easily, and these enforced situations can be a cause of real misery.
For many, this battle (for it is a battle when the pressure is on to step up and perform for the team/the boss /the firm or your career prospects) is made even harder by a condition that affects 3 million people in the UK according to a recent study – Anxiety. This seems to be particularly acute amongst the 20 – 30 year olds that comprise Generation Y, research suggests.
Being forced into a social networking situation can quickly become a spiralling circle for anxiety sufferers; the more you try not to think about your anxiety, the more it preys on you. Throw in the pressure of expectation to network successfully and the effect can be catastrophic on the self and potentially damage your career prospects.
I am not going to lay claim to providing a magic bullet within this post, but I do have some tips based on experience and many conversations over the years with those for whom the prospect of networking strikes pure dread into their hearts.
Many of those who successfully (on the surface at least) manage their anxiety in social situations the key is to reach some kind of acceptance, before moving on to the next stage.
See your anxiety in the context of humankind’s interminable battle with hostile environments – the source of our ‘fight or flight’ reflex. Many successful business people, politicians and figures in the public eye have had to learn how to tweak that flight reflex and channel it into fight. Everyone has great advice (my own: controlled breathing along with some positive thinking helps and alcohol really doesn’t), but ultimately it is only you who can find what works for you.
There are practical tips to ease your way through networking situations of course. My best advice is to study the conversation for entry points. Work is dull. It’s the daily grind and few people are as passionate about it as they are about their interests. Find out what those interests are. If you do not share that interest then be curious about it. Ask questions, be interested, be surprised, be engaged.
You may not give two hoots for gardening or the opera houses of Eastern Europe, but if your networking spar does then indulge them. People love to talk about themselves, and if they are happily babbling away about their passion, then guess what? You don’t have to small talk. And you know what else? That person will leave your conversation thinking you’re thoroughly good company.
Lastly, do not be under any illusion that ‘everybody else’ around you is breezily at ease. Much like the metaphorical swan moving gracefully across the water, there is a lot more floundering below the surface going on than you can imagine!
Luan de Burgh
Luan de Burgh is a speaker, writer and founder of de Burgh Training – a specialist business communication training provider dedicated to helping people perform at their highest potential.