Mythbusters: The Introverted Networker

Last month, my book The I’s Have It: Reflections on Introversion in Student Affairs celebrated its six month anniversary. As I continue my research in this area of temperament, I like to write about what I’m finding and how it strikes me.

We’ve got another one. Switch and Shift recently published a piece, 8 Ways Introverts Can Succeed at Networking. Titles like this always stand out to me- by writing an article about what it takes for introverts to succeed at networking, does it mean that unassisted they would fail miserably at it?

Consider this account from the article:

Last week, I was in a room with 300 strangers. I was introduced to a woman who was sharp, outgoing, and engaging. She asked really insightful, smart questions. I had her pegged: a power networker. She was clearly in her element and very comfortable connecting with strangers.

But as our conversation continued, I came to learn that she wasn’t an extrovert or a natural networker at all. To the contrary, she was a self-described introvert who had trained herself to become a great connector.

As the article continues, this part caused some headscratching (as most pieces clearly written by extroverts, for introverts, do):

While I wouldn’t call myself an introvert, I can relate to her story. While I am in the situation often enough, making small talk with strangers never comes naturally to me. I often find myself decidedly outside my comfort zone in rooms full of new people.

Taken together, this pair of paragraphs paints a picture of networking that belies the polarizing nature of the article’s title. Anyone can struggle with networking. Whether you identify as an introvert or an extrovert, some situations are just difficult. As I’ve spoken about previously, the ability to approach people in situations such as the ones presented while networking is more of a shy v. outgoing concern- a construct altogether different from introversion and extroversion.

So I want to put together a set of tips that is for introverts, by an introvert. (Full disclosure: some of these are pulled from the book, as I have written about this before). I’m not assuming that you’re shy, socially inept, or disdainful of the idea of networking. For that matter, tips that help introverts aren’t exclusive to them alone! Anyone who doesn’t like networking can benefit from heeding this information. I recommend their use for introverts because they will experience more physiological benefit from the information shared; but the tips that I put forward will help anyone manage their energy in a social situation that can seem designed specifically to drain them.

Make Small Talk Work For You: As I wrote about in last week’s post about breaking the ice with introverts, small talk is rarely the best way to engage an introvert. Their innate desire to dive deeply into information and experiences contrasts sharply with the cursory, surface conversations that networking can sometimes encourage. However, it’s something that we all (introverts and extroverts) have to accept as a hazard of the trade.

Sometimes my efforts at networking come out like this. IMAGE CREDIT: Giphy

But another trait of introverts, the ability to listen well and connect ideas, uniquely equips them to use small talk to a later advantage (and I want to thank my friend Eric for reminding me of this fact!). A tip I share later, following up with recently acquired connections, can resurface in these efforts. Hold on to the seemingly disparate tidbits that you collect in the short and sweet conversations held at these events. Take a quiet moment later on to connect them to bigger goals and aspirations. And keep reading for a way to use them later!

Mix and Match: one of my favorite strategies for networking in a space where you may be ill at ease or nervous about running low on “battery power” is to bring an extrovert with you. While this may seem counterintuitive to some less familiar with the construct, it is well-documented that “mixed pairs” of colleagues or collaborators has a number of benefits. As I say in Chapter 2, “The Myth of Separation,”:

Statistically speaking, at least one of the people with whom you’ve previously connected is an extrovert. Have this person work the proverbial room with you. This partner can break the ice where you may struggle, connect the dots between you and the people you meet, and encourage you to step out of your comfort zone. If this is a person who knows you well, this buddy could also help you monitor your energy level, creating an exit point for a conversation if you feel tired or unable to continue. Having extroverted friends who understand you is an invaluable resource; don’t be afraid to let them help you at times like this!

I do want to draw attention to that penultimate point, however. Any extrovert that you bring in to help grease the proverbial wheels, should also know you well enough to help you steal away for a recharge when it’s clearly needed. I have a good friend and occasional collaborator who excels at this. Those are the people that all introverts, shy or not, need in their corner.

Monitor Yourself and Stand Up for Your Needs: Recognizing your need for a break or recharge and being able to remove yourself from a situation to act on it are two very different things. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve set a time to leave a networking event or outing with friends, only to find myself ignoring my need to rest for the sake of preserving social graces. This is a tempting notion for those who are accustomed to not disrupting the atmosphere of an event. That being said, it’s okay to stand up for yourself and honor your needs. Adam McHugh (author of Introverts in the Church) puts it beautifully when he says,

No is an indispensable word for introverts who need solitude and space to refuel and reflect. Without ‘no’, we are unable to fully engage with others and to engage with others and to exercise our gifts in our communities. Saying ‘no’ at times enables us to wholeheartedly say ‘yes’ at other times.

Whenever I find myself struggling with the decision to stay or go, I recall some of the reactions I’ve had to reaching that burnout point in public. It rarely goes well, and can sometimes lead to rude or snippy exchanges that I know I’ll regret. Combat the possibility of an adverse reaction by listening to the inner voice that says “Time to go!” It knows best, I promise.

Connect Your Way: For some, nonfacilitated networking events with nametags and tepid appetizers is a good way to connect with people of influence. It’s one of the most common, and can be the easiest way to get people you’re interested in meeting, in one place. But don’t for a second think that these events are the only way to meet people.

Some cities have networking events where activities are involved, so the burden of initiating conversations blindly is mitigated by a shared activity like bowling or rafting. Maybe your networking takes place on the field of a club or intramural sport. Or maybe your networking isn’t face to face, but instead takes place in a LinkedIn group or is aggregated with a Twitter hashtag. While some pushing of your personal comfort zone is recommended, please know that it’s important for you to be comfortable wherever you opt to interact. That’s the best way to put the best version of yourself out there. Test your many options, and see what works best for you.

Follow Up Afterward: The longer brain pathway of introverts means that time to think (at best, ruminate at worst) over prior interactions can lead to insightful questions or further resource-sharing after the fact. Take that opportunity to create an additional impression in the mind of your new connections by following up after first contact. This can come in the form of an email or LinkedIn connection; my personal favorite is the handwritten note. Work addresses are notoriously simple to find in the age of public listings on websites. Take a moment to find an office address, write out a note thanking the person for their time, and include additional thoughts you had while reflecting on your conversation. It is shocking how few people take the time to do this.

The natural rumination tendency of the introvert can find this sort of follow-up difficult, believing it will seem annoying or desperate. Generally speaking, it comes across as quite the contrary. Connecting after first contact, genuinely and without agenda, builds credibility and makes you visible without engaging in less natural self-promotional measures.

Worried about seeming fake or disingenous? Now would be a great time to include a tidbit that was shared in the small talk earlier. As Eric mentioned, this is the time to take that “Oh, that’s interesting, I should follow up with that person about x or y,” and create a genuine connection with another person. It’s a great way to quietly bring your name back into the conversation, and who knows where such an action could lead?

What other topics relating to introversion are you interested in learning more about? Do you have any additional tips to add to this list? What strategies work or don’t work for you? And if you haven’t already picked up The I’s Have It, check it out for more tips and tricks like this!

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