Are you a social butterfly or someone that can walk into any room and feel comfortable engaging new people? That’s great. Congratulations. I want to thank you for stopping by, but you can stop reading now. Really.
Okay, still with me? Then maybe you’re more like me…not exactly sure how to navigate a room full of strangers. If that’s the case, then please read on.
The Problem Statement
Most people that know me – outside my closest friends and family – have no clue I’m a socially awkward introvert.
When I am operating in a known context with clear rules, like work, it’s easy enough to navigate. In new settings, such as a party, I’m not always sure of the rules and can find the experience challenging.
Add in my introverted nature – getting energy from being alone and feeling drained when surrounded by people – and it is an uncomfortable experience at best.
For years, I’ve chosen avoidance. Recently, I thought it was time to get past my discomfort, particularly as a role model for my son.
Whenever he gets frustrated with mastering something new, we talk about the need to practice. I have been sharing my challenges, and my own practice, so he knows adults sometimes have to work at things too. I want to believe he values the “do as I do” approach more than if I just told him he needed to work on his stuff.
So how might a socially awkward introvert practice meeting new people?
Like anything in life, to get better at something requires practice.
Networking events are a perfect opportunity to meet other people with some sort of common interest, who are there for the same purpose. Add in the seemingly endless supply of them, and you have a plethora of opportunities for practice.
I propose that practicing a series of progressively more challenging techniques can move an individual from socially awkward to socially adept.
Technique #1 – The Picasso
There are a wide variety of networking events that involve doing something as a group. It could be fantasy football, painting, bike rides…anything that involves getting people together for a common interest.
Usually, there’s an opportunity before or after the activity to spend time getting to know new people. Depending on the nature of the event, it’s also possible to interact during the activity. There is a risk, however. It’s possible to get so involved in the activity that you may or may not end up talking to many people.
For example, I went to a networking event at a painting class (see image above). I started obsessing over brushstrokes and forgot the real reason why I was painting to begin with! Luckily, we took occasional breaks and I was able to engage with some fellow painters.
Ultimately, the activity-based events are great for a first introduction to networking because the time spent standing around talking is usually limited and everyone has the activity in common.
Technique #2 – The Top Gun
A tried and true method for any event is taking a wingman. Or wingwoman.
Bringing a friend means you’ll always know at least one person at the event. However, the goal is not to hang out with that individual all night. Instead, branch out, knowing your wingman is there in a pinch.
The perfect wingman is someone who is more socially adept. Someone that has no qualms about walking up to a group of people in the middle of a conversation and introducing themselves.
Like Goose for Maverick, the best wingman will help you enter the conversation and then walk away so you can make your move. Once you’ve made it past the challenge of breaking into an established group, it’s easier to contribute to the conversation.
Technique #3 – The Darth Vader
Walking into a networking event alone, you’ll likely see small groups of people already in conversation.
It’s possible to find one person at a snack table or in a drink line, but the social types quickly congregate and it’s up to us non-social types to figure out how to best join them.
If you look around and can’t figure out a good approach to a person or group, find a spot and let them come to you. Be like Darth Vader and wait. Luke – or some other person looking for their destiny – will come to you.
Find a spot in the middle of the action, such as an empty table. Have a drink or snack with you, so it looks like you intended to find a spot to place them. Be sure to stay visible and not on the edges where it’s easy to hide.The next person that comes along will see available space and join you. Last time I found an empty table, I was alone for about a minute before two other people joined me and we spent two hours getting to know each other!
Technique #4 – The Full Monty
Having tried activity-based events, bringing along a wingman, and channeling my inner Darth…there’s only one thing left to try. It’s time to go all in.
At the next networking event I attend, my goal is to walk up to a small group and figure out a way to join in the conversation. Even if it pains me. There’s something about it that goes against my upbringing. That seems rude or presumptuous. But I’ll do it anyway.
When I explained my dilemma to my son, he didn’t understand why I’d have trouble with it. He said “I would walk up to them and say ‘Hi. My name is Kristin.’ It’s five year old logic, but no less sound.
I’ll report back on that experiment – and whether my hypothesis is valid – once I’ve taken the plunge.
Have you experienced challenges when meeting new people? What techniques have you tried? I’d love if you would share them in the comments to keep the conversation going.