Networking/Building Professional Relationships 101?
January 28, 2017 9:03 AM   Subscribe

Putting myself out there in social settings is HARD, but doing it in the context of a professional setting is even harder.

I have some anxiety that I manage well enough in most social settings, but when it comes to networking or building professional relationships I find myself really struggling. I have an upcoming conference where I will be presenting my research, and I'd like to feel a little less like a fish out of water there and hopefully create some contacts that could lead me to a job in less than a year.

Here are some of the challenges I have:

I am terrible at remembering names, both for people I have met before and for people I have just met 15 seconds earlier. For the first problem, I have a couple of strategies to try and help. If I'm going to a meeting or dinner, I look up all of the people who RSVP'd to see who I know and do a quick search of the people I don't know. If I'm at a conference and see a familiar face, sometimes I will do a quick search on my phone to try and lookup that person. For the second problem, I have resorted to looking them up after the fact, or asking for a business card when possible.

My field is dominated by politically conservative, older, Caucasian men who are married with children and/or grandchildren, and who live in or are from a rural area. I am not that. While it's silly to think I can't make a connection with a person who is different than me, I find I have a much harder time finding common ground compared to my peers, who are male, or from small towns, or have kids, or share the same political beliefs. I look and feel very much like an outsider when I attend meetings or conferences for my field. I feel like my "outsider status" makes it difficult for me to approach others and for others to approach me. I don't try to point out how different I am ("Well where I'm from we do this..") but I also don't try to hide it ("I'm from _____."). Tack onto this the fact that my field is somewhat suspicious/paranoid about outsiders who might collect information to denigrate the profession, and you've got a recipe for disaster. I do my best to assuage their fears early on by showing that I'm already "in" and accepted ("Oh I used to work for ____." "I met ____ when I was at ____ for an internship.") but I am horrible at the sort of humble bragging that this and networking in general seems to require.

The tools I would use to get me through an anxiety producing social situation are not available to me in (most) work situations. I don't have a date who knows other people and can introduce me to them. Alcohol can't be the social lubricant. I can't gently remind myself that I won't see these people ever again (more on that later). I'm also sharing a hotel room with other students (introverts nightmare) and there's only so many times I can sneak off to go to the bathroom to avoid everything at the conference itself.

The field is fairly small, which results in it feeling like the stakes are much higher. There are only so many jobs that become available, so competition among my peers is high. On top of that, everyone already seems to know everyone else. And impressions that you make tend to have a ripple effect. For example, I've overheard multiple people talking poorly about a peer who really knows their stuff but is perhaps a bit rough around the edges socially. It definitely made me more cautious about what I say or do.

On top of all this, I'm already dealing with imposter's syndrome and low self-esteem. I know I know stuff, but I'm nowhere near the level of experience or knowledge of the people I want to talk to. I'm at the point in my education where expectations of me go from "Oh, she's still a student" to "She's going to have to know that when she graduates" and this added pressure makes me worried that I'm going to ask a "dumb" question or say something that shows how little I know. I realize that this attitude is not conducive to learning and growing, but there seems to be this unspoken rule that pretty soon we will be "experts" that other people are going to look to for answers, so some level of bullshitting the answer or making out like you know more than you do is required/or expected. To be clear, I strongly disagree with this practice and do my best to say what I know and be honest about what I don't know. I have much greater respect for people who are upfront about this, but I'm also swimming in a pond where every fish is a pufferfish pretending to be much larger than they really are.

TL;DR: How do you deal with introversion, low self-esteem, and being an outsider at conferences (especially with the added pressure of networking and job searching)?
posted by gumtree to Human Relations (5 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
A small, concrete tactic: here's a trick for remembering names. When you're introduced to Glen, free associate, and picture your free association on his face.It's ridiculous, but it works mostly!


Hi, I'm Glen!
John Glenn, the astronaut ON YOUR FACE, PAL.

Hi, I'm Dave.
Dave Mathews Band ON YOUR FACE.

posted by chesty_a_arthur at 10:41 AM on January 28, 2017

If you have a little time beforehand, practice 'networking' by meeting people at the store or library. Initiate a 1 minute conversation with somebody, say, how much the bread cost these days?!. This may help you with getting past the initial hurdle of socializing with others. Basically, using small talk to break the ice.

I know I know stuff, but I'm nowhere near the level of experience or knowledge of the people I want to talk to

Go into the conference with a teachable mindset. You're presenting your research and attempting to add value to the situation. I don't see why you have to BS you way through it. Nobody knows every single thing about a subject. Also, identify what research ideas you want to know more about and seek out the answers from the more experienced attendees. Put your investigative, research skills to work.

You mentioned the field is small and competitive. Have you sought out a mentor or two who can connect you with key players that can assist in maneuvering you to the inside circle?
posted by mountainblue at 10:43 AM on January 28, 2017

When Prozac first got popular I read a book, I think it was Listening to Prozac, that said the drug was like a miracle drug for social anxiety. I found it very helpful. I was also in therapy and working on increasing my "extrovert skills". You might consider telling your doctor about your social anxiety, that is truly interfering with your ability to work, and say you'd like try Prozac. You don't have to stay on it forever, once you start feeling more at ease in those situations it seems to build on itself. May be worth a try in addition to the other suggestions you're getting.
I am not a, or your doctor/therapist, but it worked for me
posted by BoscosMom at 11:26 AM on January 28, 2017

Seconding mountainblue re utilising any easy contacts as a springboard - I cold-call often and am a quite introverted male I always try to start the day by calling on someone I know somewhat: it becomes much easier after that.

Re talking and speaking - don't worry too much about pauses and gaps; I always think I have huge gaps but folk tell me they find the talk comes out at a digestible speed.

Re knowing stuff - I tend to use a bootstrapping approach where I use more casual meetings to test areas I'm a bit uncertain about, then I take it to the next level where the context is more serious and keep on going up.
Dressing even slightly like the groups one meets with does help; what are the basic colours, materials etc?
posted by unearthed at 10:52 PM on January 28, 2017

Find a mentor! This is when another (older than you) woman in your field can be invaluable. Look into whether there's a formal mentoring program or simply ask a woman you admire.

(And if you do come across any other outsiders - male or female - cultivate a relationship with them too.)
posted by A hidden well at 6:31 AM on January 29, 2017

« Older Help me curb online spending   |   how can I trick myself into having better habits? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.