Networking For (and With) Introverts

On May 28/15, I attended Communitech’s Technology Leadership Conference (TLCWR) in Kitchener. The first keynote speaker (Susan Cain, author of Quiet), was an ironic choice for an audience made up primarily of reserved tech-types. She spoke about her book and her commitment to making the world, and in particular the workplace, more accepting of introverts.

Photo by Joe Wolf, Flickr

One of the most amusing parts of her presentation occurred when she asked this introvert-skewed audience to form impromptu groups of 4-5 people and share personal stories. The collective angst in the room was palpable—as was the surge of relief when she let us off the hook.

It’s not that introverts are unsociable, they just prefer to socialize with people they know, one or two at a time, and in short doses. Most introverts are more comfortable with their inner life of thoughts and ideas than they are with an outward life of activity and interactions. When communicating with strangers, or anyone they have friction with, introverts typically prefer to communicate in writing rather than face-to-face, since it affords some distance. And they hate being expected to share their perspective or respond to questions without being given the opportunity to think things through.

This is likely why it’s so hard to network at events that target technology geeks (or writers for that matter!) In a conference room full of introverts, the solitary attendee is likely to remain solitary. If that solitary attendee is also an introvert, she better hope to see a familiar face—or suck it up and practice being an extrovert for a day (or at least a better networker!)

Networking in any context is challenging for an introvert. But it’s a skill you can master. Regardless of whether you’re trying to hold your own in a highly sociable crowd, or striving to break through the wall of resistance created by small clusters of introverts (like I was at TLCWR), here are some tips on networking from your strengths:

  1. Narrow your focus: You’re not there to connect with everyone in the room. You may have a picture in your mind of the consummate networker who “works the room:” a big smile and a handshake, some small talk and then their eyes start to scan the room for the next target.  As an introvert, you have the awesome ability to make one person at a time feel important and interesting by being fully engaged. Find one interesting person to talk to and then let the natural flow of the people and the event move you on from that conversation. Focus on quality of connection rather than quantity.
  2. Be approachable: Remember, you’re likely not the only person in the room feeling uncomfortable. And even if you are, you still need to be someone people want to talk to. Make sure your expression and posture signal welcome (head up, standing straight, arms loose at your side, relaxed smile, etc.). You’ll spend a long, excruciating and unproductive day if you try to network when everything about you screams “back off.”
  3. Listen:  Most people are better talkers than listeners. As an introvert, you have an edge when it comes to listening, because you’re naturally wired to take in information and consider it before speaking. If you cultivate this talent and add some empathy and a genuine interest in what others have to say, you will become that exceedingly rare commodity: a great listener. As authors Brian Tracy and Ron Arden write in The Power of Charm: “When you pay close attention to other people, the more valuable and important they will feel they are, and the more they will like you.”  In other words, if you spend twenty minutes listening intently to another person you will be remembered as a fascinating individual, worth staying in touch with.
  4. Connect others:  Instead of thinking about how important certain connections might be to you, consider how you might facilitate connections for other people. If you focus on helping others succeed in their networking efforts, you will be more relaxed and natural when opportunities come your way. When it comes to networking, what goes around comes around. The person you help today will be there to introduce you to an important connection tomorrow.

We are living in an increasingly networked world. Many tools now exist to help people make connections that would have been impossible in the past. If you’re looking to build links, followers, friends and casual acquaintances it’s easier than ever to do with an online profile and a few clicks. To make meaningful and lasting connections, sometimes you have to step outside your comfort zone and network like a pro (an introverted one!)


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