Entrepreneur Petra Smith on how to throw off your networking nerves.
People buy from people. And they buy from and work with people they like. But to get to know those people, it often requires stepping into a room full of strangers and starting conversations from zero. And those uncomfortable situations are the ones that can change our life – both on a personal and business level.
As a mother of two small children, I look to them for inspiration and courage in many situations. A few months ago, in between lockdowns, my four-year-old daughter started school. She knew no one. Even with months spent in lockdown that disrupted her experience, today she has already formed many friendships that are likely to impact her for a long time.
On the first day of school, she wasn’t sure, but she went in with a smile on her face and her head held up high. I was very proud. And her smile only got bigger the more comfortable she became. Watching her walking into an environment of people she didn’t know and gradually letting go of any fears reminded me of the many uncomfortable situations just before attending networking events that required talking to people I didn’t know – and the networking lessons I can learn from a little girl:
1. What’s the worst that can happen
Identifying and addressing the risks we are facing ahead of any uncomfortable situation can change the way we see them. Of course, it feels unfamiliar as we don’t know what to expect, but there is no real danger awaiting us in that classroom or venue. Yes, we might fear that we won’t fit in or even be rejected, but what is there to lose? There are people like us in that room and we have a lot more in common than we recognise at first glance. Embracing the new conversations and hearing new perspectives will only allow us to learn about others and ourselves – and help us to get to know our audience so that we can have many more relevant conversations.
2. We are not the only ones who are uncomfortable
What we often forget is that it’s not just us who are uncomfortable walking into a room full of strangers. More people than not share the feeling of discomfort when starting new conversations and relationships, so we should recognise that many of us in that room are on the same page. Connection provides comfort, so making the first step towards the people we stand the closest to and joining in a conversation will quickly make us feel more included and less worried. Just as standing in the line before entering the school makes little strangers naturally join in a chat and play together, the same applies for grown-ups who don’t know where and how to start networking.
3. Not everyone is on the same page
Just like children won’t be best friends with everybody in their classroom, we can’t expect to connect with everyone on the same level. What’s important is to recognise that we are all different and that some people might not interest or inspire us as much as others, and we simply need to learn to move on to another conversation. It can be the difference in opinions or lack of chemistry, either way it shouldn’t make us dismiss the entire group. Yes, children bounce back and move on quicker than us, but they also try different activities to find what they most enjoy doing with their friends – not all children will enjoy sport and not all of them will enjoy art. It’s just about deciding what matters to us and how we want to connect with those around us.
4. Smile is a universal language
We form opinions about people even before we engage in a conversation and body language can make a huge difference to how others perceive us and how we feel about others. Smiling, making eye contact or standing in a way that indicates that we are open to make a connection invites others in. It encourages people to open up and feel more comfortable, as it sends out the signal that we want to connect, even if we are unsure about how to approach the other person. A smiling person also brings people together as they create a positive vibe, even if they are the quietest one in the group.
5. Sharing is caring
Sharing your attention or just simply inviting others into your group conversation will make a difference. The person you are opening up to might not stick around, but you will make their own experience a more positive one by letting them know that you are interested in their contribution. Children are authentic and they connect with others by showing their real feelings – they laugh, they cry and they are curious about others. They share their experiences with others, and instead of feeling intimidated they feel inspired and encouraged by their friends.