Thursday, April 20, 2006


Networking + Fear. One of the reasons people attend my workshop and one of the reasons I personally find networking so difficult, so draining, is fear.

Fear that I won't succeed. Fear that no one will talk to me, or want to talk to me. Fear that even if I say "Hello," somehow I will be ignored or sent home. Fear that even as old as I am I'll be a "wallflower."

My tongue will get tied. My mouth will dry up. I'll be shot on the spot (or at least shot down) for having the temerity (the courage) to show up and participate. How dare I?

What is it that is so very fearful? Why are we afraid even when we know better and have positive experiences to balance out the negative ones?

I went to a networking event in San Francisco one night. It was called First Thursdays and I had agreed to meet an architect there. We have been introduced by a mutual acquaintance and this seemed liked a good place to meet. No long lunches, but an opportunity to use the time to say hello, gather some non-verbal information, see if there is anything to pursue that might be mutually beneficial.

The venue was easy for me to get to -- so I wasn't worried about spending a lot of time getting someplace and getting home. I'd been giving my workshops on networking for a couple of years and I knew a lot of tips and tricks about how to handle uncomfortable situations. So, I went. No worries, right?

I walked off the elevator into the ante room and the buzz, the noise level, was high. There was a lot of energy in the main room, lots of talking. I could feel it and hear it. I looked into this big salon area and I was immediately afraid. Straight into fear mode. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Fear. Wall of noise. Visually what I saw was groups of people standing around talking. It seemed to me that everyone was occupied, that all these groups were closed, that no one would appreciate me interrupting them. I was in panic mode. I could not do this.

I also realized I didn't have a clue what this architect looked like. Slim, heavy. Beard, balding. Nada. I had forgotten to ask him to wear a red carnation.

My mouth went dry. Thoughts ran rabidly through my head: I have to go. I can't do this. No one will talk to me. Everyone else knows someone. Everyone else is already engaged. The cliques are formed and closed. My gosh, it was just like grammar school.

I told myself, "You can do this. You can do this. You teach a class about this for gosh sakes."

So, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes slowly and opened them slowly. I decided to find a place to drop my coat and briefcase and to find the bar, the ladies room, and the food. I figured the easiest thing to do was to simply scope out the physical environment. Look at the room, which was lovely. The event was being held in The University Club, an old, elegant building on Nob Hill.

So, I walked into the bar, a more quiet place, got a tall glass of water, and moved again into the main salon. I then walked around the edges of the crowd, found a place to put my coat. By this time I had spoken to 1 person, the bartender. Yay.

I found the buffet table, and I picked up some celery (nothing creamy or messy to spill on my clothes)... and wandered again around the edge of the crowd. I finally relaxed enough to finally see that some other folks were also standing by themselves. I stood close to one and turned and said "Hello."

From that point on, I was in conversation. I talked to one person, then moved on and talked to someone else. I even got up my courage to stand near a small group (3 people) and "lurk," listen in, and eventually participate. One time, I lurked and then wandered off. No one had paid attention to me, so I moved on.

So, why did I tell that story? Well, it's about fear. And it's about fear showing up even when you know, really know, you can handle things. Even when you look comfortable, competent. Inside you may be feeling something very different.

That fear, that sense that everyone in the room knows someone, that no one will talk to me, that the cliques are formed and closed and I'm outside, that it is simply too hard -- can hit us all. At any time -- it can surprise us.

And it's about slowing down. It's about taking stock. It's about doing what you can and taking baby steps. It's about saying "Hello." Do something you are comfortable with.

I feel stronger when I have more information -- when I know where things are, where the exits, the escape routes, and where the ladies rooms are. I am also comfortable with bars and bartenders. I am comfortable asking for water.

Walk around the edges. Take stock of what is really going on. Look for what's happening on the edges -- where others might be standing or sitting alone. Where someone might be getting food.

Say "Hello." Break the ice. Listen. If they turn and glare at you, move away. Chances are they won't shoot you. Chances are there is at least one more person there equally scared, equally paralyzed. Say "Hello" to someone else. Give them that gift.

I didn't meet up with the architect. He wasn't able to get away. As a matter of fact, I never met up with that architect. I guess it wasn't meant to happen.

I general, I tend to shy away from events like this one -- large, un-purposed mixers. I am too uncomfortable. And I hate small talk. But it's important to get out there and deal with our fears. Just say "Hello."


artmag said...

You have described my fears to a "T". I get so nervous going to large group functions. I am just sure that I will be the only one who knows no one and then I will feel like a loser. In truth, that rarely happens. Usually someone does say hello or I screw up my courage and greet someone. I have also found that if I "act" like I am comfortable and confident, it at least gets me in the door. Sometimes I just make this deal with myself--I just have to go and talk to two people I don't know and then I can leave. Well, more often than not, by the time I have met the second person I have forgotten all about leaving.

Leslie Monthan said...

Thanks for articulating this fear so well. I think most of us creative, writerly types are introverted by nature, and people in large groups exhaust us. Taking the approach you did here helps break down that inner image of a wall of people and noise and lets individuals emerge.

Great post!