Networking events can be stressful. The rational side of us knows we need to work the room – chit chat with strangers and build our contact list. But our emotional side often has a very different reaction — doing whatever we can to avoid awkward conversations with people we don’t know. So it got me thinking: Could I come up with the tactics I’ve used and see if others have had similar experiences? So here they are: My top five ways of avoiding those professional conversations you’re supposed to have, but which often make you cringe.
Tactic #1: Pretending to be Super Busy
You walk into a networking event, determined to meet a few contacts and build up your Rolodex. But then it hits you: this is a pretty intimidating context! You see everyone else succeeding in their efforts to schmooze, and you feel intimidated – maybe even anxious. But you also don’t want to look like a fool sitting on the side talking to no one. So, you do what many of us in a situation like this: You pick up your smart phone and pretend to get busy – the logic being that if you’re on your phone at time like this, it must be important… and, perhaps more importantly, you must be an important person.
Tactic #2: Clinging to People You Came With
At most networking events you typically have one of two choices: talk with the people you know, or get up the courage to talk with strangers. Despite the obvious rationalstrategy of using your time to meet new people, many people – me included – cling to people they already know, saving them from the awkwardness of chit chat with strangers, but missing out on a potentially valuable opportunity to step outside their comfort zones.
Tactic #3: Becoming a Sudden Gourmet
You may not have been hungry before, but if it’s a choice of starting up a conversation with a stranger or scrutinizing that cheese plate one last time, many of us go for the cheese plate… or the sushi station… or the dessert bar… or all of the above. And before you know it you will have shaved precious time off the event — and perhaps gained a few additional pounds in the process.
Tactic #4: Becoming Super-Interested in Your Surroundings
When all else fails, imagine whatever room you’re in is a museum, and become an extremely interested visitor. And if you look around a room – really virtually any room – you’ll find plenty of things to look at. It could be photos of a company’s founders. Or at a non-profit, a “donation wall” with hundreds of names you can take the time to scrutinize. Whatever the location, you can play the game of looking around as a great way to avoid awkward socializing.
Tactic #5: Standing in Line for the Bathroom
And then, finally, there’s the old standby: standing in line at the bathroom. Now this tactic isn’t a strategy you typically want to use multiple times. Once is fine; twice is acceptable; but when you get to three or four times, you’re pushing it… and it’s probably time to try out another strategy – or, heaven forbid, actually strike up a conversation with someone!
There’s no doubt about it: networking is stressful for many people, and avoidance is more common than you probably think. But by looking in the mirror, and taking that leap into the unknown, you can find a way to step outside your comfort zone, start having these important conversations, and move towards a more positive professional future.
Have you ever avoided conversation at a networking event? Or have you found a way to overcome your fears?
Andy Molinsky is a Professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. He is the author of GLOBAL DEXTERITY (HBR Press, 2013) and REACH: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence (Penguin, forthcoming – early 2017).