20 Ways to Overcome Social Anxiety and Network Like a Pro
Do you struggle with making conversations with strangers? Does the thought of a party or networking event have you running for the nearest place to hide? Does your mouth dry up, your body start shaking, your mind go blank, and you feel like you might pee yourself and puke as the best case scenario… worst case is spontaneous combustion or death by a thousand weird looks as everyone in the room realises quite what a freak you are.
Welcome to social anxiety. A lot of us struggle with it – some mildly, and some pathologically.
If you’re an entrepreneur, artist or writer, people expect you to be comfortable with talking about yourself, networking and selling your stuff. It’s a rather important part of your work – finding new clients and retailers, telling the press about your work. But you feel like you will die if you do. And so you’re stuck, needing to spread the word, to make a living doing what you love, but completely paralyzed with fear and anxiety.
If you’re anything like me, you’d prefer the floor to swallow you up than walk up to a stranger at a networking event. Even though you know in your logical mind that networking is just what you need to do to make your business thrive.
I get it. I really struggle with this myself. What I’ve found interesting, is since I’ve started being honest about it, just how many other people do too. I always thought I was the only freak in the room struggling with making grown up conversation. And once I spoke up about it, people started coming my way looking for advice, having seen me do my thing and build a strong social network online. So I want to share what I’ve learnt with great compassion, and please know that I am a work in progress too – some days I can do it, other days I can’t even leave the house.
So last night I went to my first local on the ground business networking event. Mama, I was proud of myself. I couldn’t have done it even a month ago.
It’s book launch time next week (the second edition of my #1 Amazon bestseller – Moon Time ) so I’m having to face all my anxieties and get myself out there – in person, by email…
What was really interesting from talking to people there, and observing, is just how common this social anxiety lark is – you are most definitely not alone… so please don’t let it stop you. You need to find ways of blindsiding it, out-smarting it… so that you can bring your wonderful personality and important work out in to the world to shine.
1. Know that you are not alone
Social anxiety is one of the most common anxieties. Most people want others to like and accept them. Most feel vulnerable in an unknown social situation. You’re not the only one. Not by a long shot. So stop beating yourself up. Number one tip for success is ease up on yourself, and show yourself the caring and compassion you would with a dear friend. And remember, chances are the people you’re about to meet have no interest in eating you for dinner.
2. Remember you’re a sponge
Networking events sort the extraverts from the introverts pretty flipping fast… If you’re an extraverted-intravert (it’s a THING people) like I am – half of you is wanting to connect, the other half can really struggle with it, and finds it exhausting.
If you’re an empath remember that you’re going to be picking up on the emotions of ALL the people in the room.You are a sponge… and there’s a lot to take in.
As a highly sensitive you’re going to be feeling overwhelmed by the stimulation – the noise, different perfumes and aftershaves, the amount of people. Find ways to self-regulate. Get outside for a breath of fresh air. Go to the toilet. Have a drink if it relaxes you… don’t if it will affect you adversely.
3. Know your cycle
If you are a menstrual woman, know where you are in your cycle – if you are premenstrual or in your first couple of bleeding days, don’t do any networking events unless they are totally unmissable. (For more on planning your creativity and work life round your cycle, see Moon Time.)
If you are in a strong anxiety swing at the moment, don’t put yourself under pressure. Take care of yourself, build yourself up physically and emotionally before you put yourself under this degree of stress. Find other small ways to reach out and connect with people in a way that feels safe for you.
4. Figure your triggers
Talking to a coach at the event, who I always presumed would thrive in this sort of environment, I’d seen her coaching one to one with ease, as well as leading groups of 30 women. But for her big room of unknown people were her nemesis. For me it’s a big party with a few friends but mostly unknowns which is mine. I’m much better if I have a purpose and am allowed to go round talking about my work without seeming rude, its normal social chit chat without an aim that beings me out in hives. Then there were the speeches – some people seemed calm and relaxed, and others read word by word from prepared cards as if their lives depended on them.
For me I realised that I can talk to most people one-to-one. It’s the initial walking into a mass of people that freaks me out. I don’t know where to go or how to start a conversation, and am sure that they all instantly hate me or think I’m a freak.
Remember these are just people, just like you, who you are here to share your passion with. It’s all about focusing on connection… not your perceived lack of connection.
5. Take a friend
Go with a friend, your partner so that you have a familiar person as an anchor and safe space. Once you’re feeling a little more at ease, challenge yourself to go and talk to a new person alone… before returning to your safe harbour.
6. Feel good
Wear something you feel comfortable in. Stand out if it makes you feel more comfortable, rather than blending in and feeling anonymous. Wearing something eye-catching or outrageous is one of the easiest ways for other people to start conversations with you – an interesting scarf, unique earrings or necklace, fab bag, swit-swoo shoes…
Try to smile each time you catch someone’s eye, which is a great way of breaking the ice, and an act of kindness – spreading good feeling around the room. It also communicates to your own body that you are safe and can relax starting a positive internal feedback.
8. Keep checking in with your body
How are you feeling? What do you need? Don’t abandon yourself… but don’t get caught in your thoughts. Keep your awareness in your body. Learn to stay aware IN your body, but move your awareness then beyond it – so that your anxious feelings are no longer EVERYTHING.
Names are one of my triggers – people tell them to me and 30 seconds later my mind is a blank. There are a number of ways to get around this. Firstly admit it at the beginning of the conversation, so they don’t take it personally. Second if they have a badge or have given you a biz card, take a sneaky look to remind yourself. Third, when they tell you their name, use it in conversation a few times or… my personal favourite, make a little mnemonic or memory device in your head to help – something funny or rude usually helps – if they’re rather irritating and called Wayne, then Wayne the Pain. If it’s an older guy called Joe, then Grandpa Joe form Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
10. Be honest… or paint a convincing persona
With anxiety there are basically two approaches you can use… or a combination of them. The first is to be straight up and honest, saying something like: I find it really hard at places like this – either the person will empathize and open up more honestly to you, telling you they feel the same and bam! you immediately have a connection. OR – if they don’t experience it themselves, or have overcome it – they will reassure you that you are doing a good job or offer some friendly advice – either way – they will respect you for your honesty.
OR your can put a big smile on, have your ready made lines ready, dress yourself up to the nines and fake it till you make it. This approach is usually pretty flipping exhausting but avoids emotional vulnerability and authenticity, in a situation where you might not feel safe or comfortable being that way.
11. Breaking the ice
Go to someone you feel drawn to and tell them that you felt drawn to them, and why – did you like what they were wearing, do they look familiar and you can’t place them, do you love their company, are the the closest person tot he buffer – all these are great ice breakers. Once you’re in a one to one conversation – if this is where you feel most comfortable – try to tune out the external atmosphere – by turning a mental dial down on it, so that you can focus on your interaction with them and find connections between you.
12. Watch your body language
Some of us physically close up to protect ourselves when we are feeling anxious – crossing our arms over our chests, our voices go quieter so people have to lean in further – making us feel more intimidated and cross examined. Or we stutter, slur or race our words, making us harder to understand. Try to root yourself in your body, and commit to being as physically and vocally open with each person you meet as you can.
13. Pick your event carefully
If you’re a female hippie creative entrepreneur (ahem) then showing up to your regional chamber of commerce event which will be dominated by 50 year old men in suits from traditional jobs is not going to help you feel like you fit in. Start out by attending events with like-minded folks at a similar stage of business to you, to build your confidence.
14. Take business cards
You are expected to have cards on you, it makes it easy to exchange details without scrabbling for a pen and writing random names on the back of your hand. Play the game. But even more, make them a talking point – make them breathtakingly beautiful, not just boring and businessy. I have book covers and my paintings on them – you can see them in the header for this post (I get them printed by Moo). They’re beautiful and glossy, they come in 50 different designs, so people can choose their favourites – they give us something to talk about and something to hold in my hands.
15. Have your elevator pitch ready
I’m world-class at blathering incomprehensibly when someone asks what I do. My convoluted job titles of author-editor-publisher-artist-teacher is not the sort of work that fits on the back of a postage stamp. So I am crafting a standard response for each of my “hats” depending on who I’m talking to. A two line answer – so for Womancraft I say: “I am the founder of Womancraft Publishing – an imprint which publishes life-changing, paradigm-shifting books by women, for women.” For Lucent Word: “We are offer editorial and proofreading services for everything from books to brochures to blogposts. And we have a passion for supporting self-published authors.”
There’s nothing worse than getting into labyrinthine explanations of what exactly you mean by your job – the person looking bemused as you get more and more uncomfortable. Or feeling like you’re being cross examined… rather than getting the opportunity to sell your services or products with the person you’re talk with. I used to say I was an author of women’s non fiction. Which led to the question – what kind of non-fiction. Creativity and the menstrual cycle… by which stage the person was looking for their excuses to leave. One of my social media assistants, Lou, suggested I say women’s cycles instead – true but without the trigger word – it worked a dream, Lou, thanks – the first person I tried it on was a journalist who arranged an interview with me there and then!
16. Prepare a question (or two) to ask…
Have a drink in your hand… and an excuse in your back pocket, planned well in advance.
This way you can always leave a conversation if you feel the anxiety rising too much: I need the toilet, I need another drink, I promised X I’d meet them at this time…
17. Set yourself a challenge
When you go in – maybe it’s to simply walk in the door. Maybe it’s to stay for 1/2 an hour. Maybe to talk to three people. Or hand out 5 business cards. Something with a clearly defined aim that you can feel proud that you have achieved. Otherwise for us perfectionist Type A personalities, what happens is we leave and beat ourselves up if we haven’t wooed every person in the room and signed every single soul up for our new program. Set yourself challenging but realistic goals. And then acknowledge that you’ve achieved it when you leave, and let yourself know that you are proud of yourself, that what you did may not be a big deal for other, but it was for you.
18. Set your terms – know your limits
I don’t do phone calls – they freak me out, the kids always start screaming, or my phone is down the back of the sofa – so I don’t have my phone number anywhere – on my business card, on my email footer, nor do I give it to people I meet at events, if I can help it – because the truth is I don’t want to talk to unknown people on the phone. I know others who can’t do email – writing or spelling are their nemesis. Whereas I am more than happy to do business by email. My husband is the same. So we do. And it works for us.
19. Do most of your networking on line
There, I said it, for most of us online is easier – so respect that. It’s a real thing. And means you get to meet fascinating people on the other side of the world that you probably wouldn’t in real life. Online also leads to more immediate emotional intimacy – but lacks the deep energetic connection of face to face interaction (which for empaths and HSPs is often a nice energetic buffer). So try to strike a balance – connect with real people, on the ground… when you’re in the right space and feeling strong enough.
20. And finally…
Remember that the reason that your body is feeling anxious is because it’s trying to keep you safe. It’s trying to be your friend, because you believe on some level that you are under threat. So reframing other people as not Dangerous Others AKA lions and tigers that are going to tear you limb from limb, is more long term work to do. What is it you believe will happen? What is the worst case scenario? How likely is it? Has it ever happened? What would actually happen if it did? Why not try it out to see if it actually does? CBT, mindfulness, cranio-sacral are all great ways to heal anxiety on a deeper level.
Anxiety is increased exponentially by adrenaline. Adrenaline is released where we’re scared or excited. For those of us with adrenal fatigue, who have been living off adrenaline for years, and are now unable to regulate it – remember that a big doses of adrenaline will leave you feeling wiped out after the event and for the next few days afterwards, so be sure to rest well, up your supplements and self-care – for more see my uber-popular post on Healing Adrenal Fatigue.
Go well, fellow warrior (worrier!)… you are braver than you think. And you are not alone. Please do share your tips and tricks for overcoming social anxiety that you have learned or developed… we’d love to share in your wisdom.