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"People empty me. I have to get away to refill." C. Bukowski

Your heart bursts against your chest. Your palms sweat, and your throat constricts. You have to remind yourself to breathe. Exhaustion threatens to take over. You're at a cocktail party.

Extroverts will be thinking, "So, is there a hungry lion at this cocktail party? What's the problem?" Introverts will know: just being there, surrounded by people and noise, is the lion. Highly charged social situations that mix business and "pleasure," can be stressful, or downright terrifying, for introverted folks. Good news... Introverts: the lion need not attack; you can survive - and thrive - when networking.

Best Networking Tip for Introverts - Ever

The labels "extrovert" and "introvert" don't necessarily have to do with being outgoing or shy. Barbara Streisand, for example, is a shy extrovert. She's got a larger than life personality, and an equally large case of stage fright. Bill Gates is an outgoing introvert. He is studious and "bookish," but unfazed by the presence - or opinions - of others.

Instead, the distinction between extrovert and introvert comes from the energy source. Extroverts draw energy from people around them; being alone drains them. Introverts draw energy from being alone, and people drain them.

For introverts, then, the idea of attending a four-hour social event with hundreds of other people can be defeating, demoralizing, discouraging. The solution: Don't go.

Wait... Don't Go?

Is that the best advice you've ever heard? It makes sense: you are probably not going to be that effective in such an environment. You'll be drained. After shaking hands, asking and answering questions, laughing at bad jokes - you are done. And it is agony. Why put yourself in a situation in which you will not only be uncomfortable, but in which you will likely fail?

That doesn't mean you're off the "networking" hook. It does, however, mean you can make it tolerable, and even fun. Really. Strategy consultant Dorie Clark writes in Harvard Business Review:

I've come to realize that networking is downright enjoyable when you match it to your strengths and interests, rather than forcing yourself to attend what the business world presents as archetypal 'networking events.'

Trading Archetypal for One-on-One

As an introvert, your strengths and interests tend to be focused on one-on-one interactions, on the person. As Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, writes, "I've come to realize that the problem with 'networking' is not talking to strangers but rather making small talk with strangers."

To that end, networking for you is personal. It is one-on-one. It is referrals from trusted colleagues, associates, or friends. It is introductions. It is a context in which you can skip the small talk and engage with the person. Everyone needs to expand his or her network - that's a given. But how you do it is up to you. The "archetypal" image of networking events needn't be your reality.

Networking could just as well mean meeting someone for a cup of coffee. If you're an introvert, you ought to be having lots of coffee. (Decaf is acceptable after a certain point.) Cain says that, "Everyone shines, given the right lighting." Your lighting might be the glow of a coffee shop.

Meeting In the Middle

Sometimes, you just have to go. It's life. When I find myself in a crowd, I usually ferret out one or two people I want to meet or to whom I can relate. I spend a half-hour with them (not making small talk!) and then I'm out of there. I know my limits: one shrimp cocktail, one crostini with hummus, and one or two deep conversations.

Cain says, "Look for people whose company you truly enjoy - people you sincerely like and want to keep in touch with. After you've met two or three of them, your work is done. Now you can go back to your hotel room and watch a movie in your pajamas."

Leave Your Comfort Zone - Not Your Sanity Zone

Networking, meeting people you don't know may be outside your comfort zone. Good. It should be. That's how we grow. But as management consultant Maya Townsend writes in The Introvert's Survival Guide to Networking, you should always remain in your "sanity zone."

My comfort zone is watching someone climb a cliff. I leave that zone when I go to tackle a 40-foot climb at the rock gym. I'm scared, but I'm not petrified. I'm exhilarated when I make it up and back without dying. However, free climbing would drive me completely over the edge. That's way outside my sanity zone and would leave me a gibbering mess.

Networking is within your sanity zone. It may be outside your comfort zone, but it doesn't need to be free climbing or free falling.

Those situations - when your heart is threatening to beat out of your chest, when you are planning a Mission Impossible escape from a cocktail party? You can safely avoid those. Network on your terms: a great meeting in a caf, a one-on-one referral, or a one crostini-two conversation event and then a movie in your pajamas.


Larry Hart

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