networking challengesFor the past decade, networking experts Gayle Hallgren-Rezac, Judy Thomson and Darcy Rezac at Shepa Learning Company have been surveying their clients to discover their networking challenges. Based on more than 5,000 survey responses, they have suggested the following solutions to the top 10 challenges.

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#1 Challenge: “Being an introvert, I am most comfortable in small groups or one-on-one”

As an introvert, it’s smart to recognize that one-on-one and small groups are the most comfortable way for you to network. Asking someone out for coffee or joining small meet-up groups are good ways to network, but what if you have to attend a bigger event? In business and life, there are networking events you can’t escape, such as a company event, a conference or a friend’s wedding. Here are some ideas to make these events more enjoyable.

  • When attending networking events it’s good to know that you’re not alone in your thinking. Research shows 30 per cent to 50 per cent of the population has some degree of introversion, so remind yourself that others in the room feel the same way. Why not make them feel more comfortable? Offer up a warm smile and be the first one to ask a question. Have a host-like mentality—even if you aren’t the host.
  • You can also take the pressure off networking by relaxing and remembering that you aren’t there to sell yourself. We call this Positive Networking®, “discovering what you can do for someone else with no expectation of anything in return.” The bonus to this what-can-I-do-for-you attitude is it creates natural conversation fire-starters. Since you want to learn about the other person, you instinctively ask questions.
  • When you know you have to network in a crowd, go with a tag teammate. It is simply easier to network with a buddy.
  • It’s normal for introverts to feel drained after networking in a large crowd. Make sure you congratulate yourself for having stepped out of your comfort zone. It will make you feel positive, rather than negative, about the experience, and as a result you will see networking in a better light.

What is your networking challenge? Perhaps we can solve it for you. Contact us at: tips@shepalearning.com

#2 Challenge: “Getting up the nerve to speak to strangers”

This is a mind-over-matter issue because there’s an infinitesimally small chance that anything really awful is going to happen. You won’t be struck by lightning. The floor won’t open up and suck you into Middle Earth. But even if you realize that it is not life-threatening, no one likes the potential of rejection. An example of networking rejection is starting a conversation with someone only to have them put up a “wall.” When this happens, it’s easy to react to their reaction. Why doesn’t this person want to talk to me? Does this person not like me?

These thoughts are happening at a neural level. Daniel Goleman, author of Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, explains it this way: “The brain’s areas for movement and emotion are peppered with ‘mirror neurons,’ a newly discovered class of brain cells that act like neural Wi-Fi. These neurons specialize in tuning into the person we are with and creating in our brain a replica of the other’s emotions, actions, and intentions—tuning us to their wavelength.” In other words, emotions are contagious.

Once you understand what is happening, you can protect yourself from this unnerving situation. Instead of catching their negative virus, act confident―even if you have to fake it. Continue to smile, stay focused, keep your body language open and maintain the conversation in a positive manner. Your goal is to leave that person with a mirror of your positive emotions, actions and intentions. No matter what the outcome, if you understand what is happening at a neural level, you will feel you are in control of a positive outcome for yourself.

What is your networking challenge? Perhaps we can solve it for you. Contact us at: tips@shepalearning.com

#3 Challenge: “It's a challenge to break in and introduce yourself where there are cliques”

This is where experience is a huge asset. Your self-assurance comes from getting used to networking and practising the skills. There is no substitute. Next time you want to break into a group, try these techniques:

  • Find an open group, not one where you have to use a jackhammer to break into the circle. Approach the group with a smile and try to make eye contact with someone. Be patient, and when there’s a break in the conversation, introduce yourself. Yes, you can still be rejected (sorry, some people still act like nerds in their cliques), but if you treat it like an experiment, it takes the emotion out of it―you’ll be more curious than fearful. I wonder how long before someone acknowledges me and invites me into the group?
  • It’s good to test-drive breaking into a group. You will need backup. Say to your networking tag teammate, “Wait here while I try and join that group. If it doesn’t work, come rescue me.” Knowing you’ve got backup in the room removes the risk, and you will find, after a few successes, that it will be easier for you to do solo.

How can you be a Positive Networker if you are one of the people in the group who notices someone who wants to join your circle of conversation? Immediately acknowledge the new person with a smile. Move so there is room for the person to join the circle. Then, when there’s a break in the conversation, bring the person into the group, “Please join us. Let me introduce you to everyone.” Having these social skills are good for your reputation, plus it’s the right thing to do.

What is your networking challenge? Perhaps we can solve it for you. Contact us at: tips@shepalearning.com

#4 Challenge: “I am not quick with small talk”

We can relate to this challenge. Who hasn’t been engaged in small talk, while thinking, Wow, this is pretty lame. Seriously, I’m talking about the weather?

  • Our first piece of advice is simple. Understand that small talk feels awkward. It’s an investment you have to make to get a connection happening between two people.
  • Avoid “fancy” questions such as, “Tell me something about yourself that I wouldn’t know.”
  • Keep the questions logical, contextual and open-ended, if possible. “Your name tag shows that you are a member—tell me something about this association.” “How do you know the host?” “What are you hoping to learn from the speaker?”
  • The goal is to get people talking about themselves, what they do, their passions or interests. Once you have achieved this, the conversation will begin to flow.
  • Don’t set the bar too high for yourself. You don’t have to be quick or witty, you just have to be interested.

What is your networking challenge? Perhaps we can solve it for you. Contact us at: tips@shepalearning.com

#5 Challenge: “Conversational skills—I can generally carry on a conversation, but there are some people I am entirely awkward with, and I cannot clearly identify why”

It’s true, sometimes there’s a you-can’t-put-your-finger-on-it kind of awkwardness in conversations. Not every time you meet someone does there have to be an instant and amazing connection. Our advice, from years of networking, is don’t overthink it. But in case you are wondering, here are a few things that may be causing this non-harmonic convergence.

  • You may be getting a vibe that they are judging you or wondering if you can do anything for them. This is the modus operandi of old-fashioned transactional networkers, and it feels uncomfortable to be caught in their crosshairs. Remember, you can add value. They just don’t recognize this.
  • They could be shy. They need time to feel comfortable and understand that you don’t bite.
  • Perhaps the other person is more senior, and you feel intimidated. Your inner voice says, I want to make a good impression. If this senior person is someone in your company, talk about the work that you do and your team. As a leader, they should want this information. Or ask them about some of the latest company initiatives and their thoughts. With anyone who is more senior, give yourself permission to engage in a conversation with a little self-talk, They should want to hear what I have to say; I’m sure they do!
  • If the awkwardness continues, move on. It will feel better if you do the disengagement (nicely) rather than drag it out.

 What is your networking challenge? Perhaps we can solve it for you. Contact us at: tips@shepalearning.com

#6 Challenge: “How do I exit a conversation gracefully?”

Exiting a conversation is one of the harder things to do when circulating in the networking pond. Finding the correct moment to do it and not sounding too harsh are a couple of the challenges. Let’s start with “what not to say”:

  • “I see someone over there who I want to go and meet.” (Implication: I want to talk to that person more than I want to talk to you.)
  • “I see a friend over there who I want to say hello to.” (Implication: You are not as important to talk to as a friend of mine.)
  • “Sorry, gotta get this call.” (Enough said…)

Instead of these brush-off sentences, become skilled (and kind) at exiting a conversation.

  • The nicest approach is to take the person over to meet someone else. “Let me introduce you to someone I think you should meet.” Or “Why don’t we go meet some other people?” Recognize that this may not be the best technique if you want to move on solo.
  • Good networkers exit conversations as painlessly as possible—no fuss, no muss. Just a few kind words, and they are on their way. They find a moment in the conversation to change the subject and let the other person know they are moving on. “Natalie, I’m so glad I’ve learned more about your company. You’ve done some impressive things with your social media. Thanks for your insight. It was great talking to you.” Shaking hands is a nice way of signing off.
  • Of course, this exit dialogue approach doesn’t work if the person leaving the conversation has been scanning the room planning their escape. Make each networking conversation a high-quality engagement, no matter how brief.
  • Also, it’s important to not be the one “clinging on” to the conversation. Recognize that the other person may be happy to move on too.

What is your networking challenge? Perhaps we can solve it for you. Contact us at: tips@shepalearning.com

#7 Challenge: “Scheduling to attend an event due to time constraints, and sometimes cost”

You’ve actually answered part of this time-challenge question; you need to schedule it! Networking falls to the bottom of most priority lists as the “real” work keeps piling up. It may be your best intention to do more networking, but unless you book it in your calendar, it probably won’t happen. You can also improve your chances of not cancelling if you invite someone to accompany you. That doesn’t mean you have to pay for them, but making a commitment to go to the event with someone will keep you from bailing.

Prioritizing networking may be a challenge, but investing the time to build a network actually saves you time in the long run. Sandra Yancey, founder of eWomen Network, describes it best: “Knowing how to pick up the phone and get something done through your network is more powerful than a fancy title or corner office.”

If you consider networking to be a marketing cost, then the $100 for a board of trade, chamber or business event is money well spent if you circulate and follow up. But you do not always need to fork out big bucks for events. Regularly Google “business networking events” or “events” and you’ll be surprised at the number of cool low- or no-cost events happening where you live.

It is important to put marquee events into your marketing budget. These are the big-ticket events, anything from listening to David Foster share his story to attending a hospital foundation gala. Marquee events are important because everyone in the business community shows up. It’s networking at its best.

Finally, it is worth remembering that everyday situations provide natural opportunities to build your network―riding your office elevator, standing in line for coffee, attending your children’s sporting activities. Networking is an attitude, not an event.

What is your networking challenge? Perhaps we can solve it for you. Contact us at: tips@shepalearning.com

#8 Challenge: “How do I find groups that I ‘fit’ with?”

If you are looking for a group that fits, you should look for networking opportunities that complement your business needs, as well as your personality and passions.

Here are some questions worth asking yourself:

  • Do I need a support network such as young professional group, an internal network within the firm, a venture capital/angel investor network or a women’s network? (Men: Many women’s networks encourage male members and board members.)
  • Do I need a network that will open me up to new opportunities, in other words, somewhere to meet a diverse group of people?
  • Which organizations are the most dynamic and active in my community? How can I get more involved? Can I join a committee? If it’s a volunteer organization, how can I add value?
  • Do I need to get out from behind my desk and join a sports club, book club, hiking group or wine group?

The most important thing to remember is that it takes time to build relationships with new people. Keep going back; don’t give up. Pretty soon it will feel like Cheers, where everyone knows your name.

Do you want to learn how to walk into a room solo? Here are 5 great tips for networking solo.

What is your networking challenge? Perhaps we can solve it for you. Contact us at: tips@shepalearning.com

#9 Challenge: “How do I follow up? How do I maintain my relationships?”

Dr. Daniel Muzyka, CEO of the Conference Board of Canada and former dean of the Sauder School of Business, in the afterword to Work The Pond! says, “If we spend little time interacting in social, business and community activities, our network won’t disappear, but it will depreciate like any aging asset. Network interaction—especially where we add value through our ideas and support—helps maintain the asset.”

Here are some things to consider regarding follow-up:

  • When you meet someone, look for an opportunity to share some information immediately or at a later date. If you’ve been asking them questions, you’ll probably have enough knowledge so you can follow up with some topic you discussed.
  • If you meet someone and want to follow up, ask permission at the end of the conversation.
  • If you don’t have a specific reason to follow up, ask the person to join you on LinkedIn. Personalize your invitation: “We met at the finance minister’s speech on Friday—those were pretty amazing comments he made!”

Here are some ideas to maintain relationships:

  • Go back to the same events or organizations regularly. You will become known, and this face-to-face contact is the easiest way to build rapport and trust.
  • Be a connector. Think about this all the time.
  • Reach out. It could be simply, “How are things going? Grab a coffee?”
  • Follow people on Twitter, use Instagram (your customers and clients may use it for business). “Like” and “follow” your client’s Facebook page. Retweet, comment (positively) on blog posts, and share links. 

What is your networking challenge? Perhaps we can solve it for you. Contact us at: tips@shepalearning.com

#10 Challenge: “I don’t think I bring as much to the table as others”

"Top 10 Networking Challenges Solved" is based on comments from our anonymous online surveys, and we are always surprised by the candidness of the respondents. This challenge of believing that you “don’t have something to contribute” or “people won’t be interested” in what you have to say doesn’t just happen to networking newbies, it is expressed no matter what the level of experience, and from both men and women.

There are some practical actions to take before going to a networking event that will help you be more confident in your contributions to the conversation.

If the event has a topic, a guest speaker or panel, do a little research before you show up. That way when you ask someone, “Have you heard this speaker before?” you’ll have some knowledge to add to the conversation and can add, “I was surprised to learn he has spoken at TED before.” This conversation can easily move on to TED Talks, and you can ask what are their favourite TED talks (and share yours). That’s how easy it is!

Other ways to be more prepared to contribute:

  • Go online and look for the latest news on the subject of the event.
  • If the topic is technical, read a paper on the subject.
  • Scan the news and see what’s topical or trending for general chit-chat. “Did you hear the story on the news this morning about…”

And, most importantly, turn off what Arianna Huffington calls the "obnoxious roommate living in your head" who says, I don’t think you bring as much to the table as others. Change your mantra to these three thoughts:

  1. I will learn something new by listening to others.
  2. I came prepared so I can ask a question.
  3. I have something to offer.

What is your networking challenge? Perhaps we can solve it for you. Contact us at: tips@shepalearning.com

Gayle Hallgren-Rezac, Judy Thomson and Darcy Rezac, principals of Shepa Learning Company, are business networking speakers and authors of Work the Pond! Use the Power of Positive Networking to Leap Forward in Work and Life (Penguin/Prentice Hall)   

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