How to deal with social anxiety when networking

The mere thought of attending social events, whether personal or business-related, can initiate feelings of utter dread and social anxiety in some of us. This type of anxiety can be debilitating and incredibly challenging to overcome. It’s not simply a matter of giving yourself a stern talking to in the mirror, telling your fretful reflection to “get a grip’. It’s a real fear. It doesn’t mean that you’re weak or doomed to failure. It’s not an indication of your capabilities. Your fear is a completely natural and genuine feeling that has established itself over a long period of time, so you need to take a positive and gentle approach to build up your confidence. Berating yourself will not help.

As we emerge from the pandemic different forms of networking may begin again.  This can once again evoke feelings of social anxiety for those who meeting many people in person is an ordeal.  Your shyness or social anxiety may deter you from partaking in such events, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Even the most gregarious social dynamos experience trepidation at the prospect of attending a strategic networking event. They may not show it or even dare admit it, but it happens. They know how to better deal with it in unfamiliar or challenging situations. With practice, you can learn to do this, too.

Challenge accepted

Around five in a hundred people suffer from some degree of social phobia, so you’re not alone. If your anxiety is severe, you may benefit from psychological treatments such as social skills training, graded self-exposure, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and/or medication to address underlying the issues that are affecting your mental and emotional wellbeing. Milder cases can be improved with self-help treatments like self-confidence or assertiveness training, relaxation techniques and practising gratitude.

If your fear is related to networking outside your comfort zone, or you’re naturally introverted, there are several simple techniques you can employ to overcome this angst and build valuable relationships that could further your business aims. Continuously avoiding something you’re afraid of will only reinforce your established fear. Instead, accept your anxiety, resist procrastination, go forth into the situation (unless it’s illegal or likely to result in severe injury) and prosper. At the very least, you might get a free glass of Asti Spumante and a vol-au-vent at the event.

1. Be selective

No rule says you have to attend every networking event in your area. Who has the time for that? Be selective and pick the ones that sound fun to give yourself a better chance of enjoying the experience. Find out if there’s a freelancer meetup in your area – most cities have these types of business networking events each week – or look into volunteering opportunities to build up your confidence. Your local business hub may also hold useful seminars and workshops where you can meet other business owners and learn new skills simultaneously.

2. Prepare

The more knowledge you have, the more confident you will feel in yourself when talking to other people. Before attending any event, make sure you can articulate the purpose and aims of your business. Preparation is key. Whilst you’re likely perfectly aware of what you and your business are all about, it’s not always easy to explain to other people if you’re put on the spot. Fear can suddenly paralyse our cognitive functions, rendering us unable to formulate a coherent sentence. Think about what you want to say, what you want people to know, why you do what you do, and what you hope to achieve from your business venture and networking. Write these things down and say them out loud.

3. Arrive early

Some articles suggest that one shouldn’t arrive at events too early because it’s awkward when fewer people. Speaking as an introvert who is prone to feeling anxious at social events and flat-out refuses to partake in public speaking, I wholeheartedly believe it’s beneficial to arrive early. It’s less intimidating than walking into a room packed full of strangers, and it’s easier to strike up a conversation with people before they’ve established themselves in a large group. There’s not as much competition early doors; people are more likely to approach you, and you’ll be more at ease by the time the room fills us. Stand at the bar or next to the food – you can’t go wrong.

4. Don’t try too hard

Instead of conjuring up interesting discussion topics and meeting everyone in attendance, smile, be friendly, and try to have fun. Ask questions, be attentive and show genuine interest when speaking to an individual or group of people. Focus on them and what they do, rather than scrambling your brain for something fascinating or amusing to say. This will take the attention away from you and help you to relax. Your shyness will gradually dissipate as you become more comfortable and rapport with the people you are talking to. You might even enjoy yourself… steady on.

And remember – everyone else is probably feeling self-conscious and nervous. By putting them at ease, you will make a good impression and build your credibility. When you get to know other people, you will likely discover you have more in common than you think. You may even learn some useful tips or stumble upon a valuable opportunity to further your business.

If you’re struggling, have a couple of questions at the ready, such as:

    • “What inspired you to start your business?”
    • “Do you have to travel a lot for your job?”
    • “Did you face any challenges when you first started your business?”

5. Maintain composure

If there’s alcohol at the event, don’t start necking it like there’s a new prohibition on the horizon. You can have a bit of sauce, sure, but pace yourself. One or two will do just nicely to put you at ease. You can swig as much as you like when you get home. If you drink too much at the event, your anxiety will be through the roof the next morning, and you’ll feel even worse. This will reinforce your fear of networking, and you’ll be reluctant to attend another event. If you’re feeling happy and having a super time, switch to soft drinks to maintain that current feeling.

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Graeme Donnelly is a founder and managing director at Rapid Formations the UK’s leading company formation agents.
He regularly writes about entrepreneurship, setting up a business and company formation related topics.