Q: The networking events that are part of new associate orientation seem awkward. Conversations lag or they will go on forever – or I won’t have anything in common with the other person. It’s tedious and draining. What can I do?
A: Becoming a hermit is probably not an option. As you seem to recognize, you have to try to make the events more palatable. And remember that things get better. Just with the passage of time, you will build relationships and develop friendships and much of the awkwardness will fade.
In a few months when you are billing lots of hours, you may even reminisce about having to socialize over cocktails. In the meantime, here are some tips to help make some specific networking situations more palatable.
You think you have nothing in common. If a conversation is tedious because you have nothing in common, try to be curious about your differences. Exploring those can be even more fascinating than bonding over common ground. And you may learn something. Asking open-ended questions that start with something like, “Tell me more about . . .” may elicit intriguing information. Just steer clear of politics and religion.
The other person is boring. It’s possible the other person is boring because you are not really listening. Or the person just may be really boring. Try to stay focused. Listen intently, and look the other person in the eyes. If your mind wanders, come back. And pretend that you will be quizzed later on what you hear in the conversation. If you listen intently, something may pique your interest. If not, try to steer the conversation to a topic that intrigues you – or use the tips below to escape.
The other person won’t stop talking. Jackpot. You don’t need to worry about what you will say. If the other person is someone you wanted to learn about, you’re getting lots of information with minimal work. If you start to get deluged with chatter, try the bathroom or bar excuse. Or extend your hand at the slightest break in the conversation and thank the person for talking as you ease away. It may be easier to escape if you bring someone else into the conversation. As they begin to talk, you can fade away without leaving anyone stranded.
You are anxious. You may be anxious because you don’t know people, because you feel like an impostor, or you feel as if you have to sell yourself. Try to take the pressure off yourself. Make it your goal to find out about other people. Listen and don’t worry about not saying the right thing – or anything. Introduce yourself to someone who is standing alone. That person will probably be relieved to talk to someone. If you hit it off, the two of you can work the room together. And you don’t have to stay at events until the bitter end.
If you have met a few people, and you still aren’t enjoying yourself, consider leaving. There will be more events, and they will get easier. A very personable associate told me she used to be terrified of networking when she first started, because she felt like an imposter – she did not feel as if she fit in. I expect that she appeared much more at ease than she felt. But as she attended more events, integrated into the firm and gained confidence as a lawyer, her anxiety disappeared.
You don’t know how to start the conversation. If you have time before an event, even tiny bit of research can help fuel a conversation. For people you can’t research, be ready with one or two stock questions. At a law firm event, asking about a lawyer’s practice is obviously a safe place to start. Just remember, try to avoid “yes” or “no” questions. Nothing shuts down a conversation like a string of uncomfortable “no” responses: “Have you been on any fun trips lately?” “Not really.” “Do you have pets?” “No.” You get the point.
No one will talk to you. If you are concerned that people won’t talk to you, check to see if you are smiling and making eye contact. Your discomfort at the event may be broadcasting a “stay away from me” death glare. And remember, it’s not other people’s job to entertain you – or even notice you. Smile and find someone who looks receptive – and just put out your hand and introduce yourself. Or look for people to meet near the bar where people are circulating. If you introduce yourself and the conversation doesn’t take off, you haven’t lost anything. You won’t gain a life-long friend or land a client with one introduction. But remember that every friendship and client relationship started with an introduction.
Try these tips, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Working a room is work for most people.