How I Overcome Social Anxiety To Maximize Networking Opportunities

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Over the last few years I have I reflected on my experiences with networking in the Salesforce ecosystem and why networking is becoming increasingly vital. I want to return to this topic, capturing insight and coping strategies that I’ve since uncovered. 

Do larger social situations make you feel nervous, fill you with foreboding or just make you go “meh”?

They certainly do for me. It turns out that there may be reasons for this. Am I on the Autism Spectrum, do I have ADHD, did I miss out on learning this particular skill as a child, have I been scarred by previous social events? Who knows. What matters – to some extent – is the here and now.

I’m currently going on a “journey” (my sister hates that word, but it doesn’t make it any less true!) and I want to share a new nugget of wisdom I recently discovered – a “brain hack” to help you reflect if you’re in a similar situation.

And the Salesforce context? More events are returning to in-person meetings, so I bet this is on many peoples’ minds. Remember, no matter how awesome the technology, the social situations are where you learn the most important things and share the personal (real-world!) experiences that aren’t always mentioned in the online documentation.

Too Much Thinking “On my feet”

Let’s go back to that social space. What I hate about it is that it’s nebulous, it’s hard to define. 

If there are lots of people that I either don’t know or don’t immediately remember, this I find challenging. Just like a computer, my brain throws an “information not found” error and I don’t know how to cope!

The main issue is that in any social situation there could be a lot of potential conversations happening. My brain just doesn’t think quickly enough as I like to think about my answers. Often I would be left going “umm” when posed with a question, or – even worse – I would have to come up with questions and make “small talk”. I’m just not good at that. Too much thinking on my feet. Just like with my consultancy activities, I like to have some time to prepare.

How do I Navigate that Social Space?

There are a number of techniques I deploy:

  • Find out who the others will be. I do this by speaking to the organisers to figure out who has signed up, or by looking at the advertising and trying to work out who else the event will attract. This way I can then try to predict the likely topics of interest.
  • Think of potential questions to ask, in advance. This means they are right to the front of the filing cabinet in my brain and available to access quickly. I also have conversation starters should I want to initiate a conversation.
  • Keep myself occupied. Whether it’s helping out in the kitchen/with the catering, or on the door, these are defined roles that I can get on with, and soak up the atmosphere without having to make small talk. I can also keep my eyes open for interesting people* from this vantage point! *everyone is in fact interesting, but it does depend on the mood I am in.
  • Stick with small groups. I go into the room and there are many people. Focus. From there I will find either someone else standing solo and I can go and chat with them, and hopefully empathise, or join a small group. Ideally that small group has someone that I know, so I can be welcomed, and also one or two people that I don’t know – in this way I can expand my network slowly and gradually, in a less stressful fashion.

There are other techniques too – please feel free to contribute what works for you in the Comments section!

In Covid times, social spaces can mean seeking out the smaller virtual user groups and Salesforce Saturdays, so it’s easier to navigate and participate – or by reaching out to people and offering to meet for an in-person or virtual coffee (I do the latter all the time!). There’s also Nonprofit Sprints where smaller workgroups are formed, or you can sign up for workshop-style courses that are regularly being put on and advertised on Twitter by the great and good!

Fun fact: although I used to co-lead the Amsterdam User Group with 80+ attendees, I am actually at my happiest at the smaller regional Admin Groups; for me, I find them more intimate and I spend longer having deeper conversations with people, rather than spending lots of time going around and saying hello to many people. Both have their place, but size matters in surprising ways.

“Brain Hack” for Overcoming Social Anxiety

To help manage my anxiety I often think about how the evening will go. I’d think up a few scenarios: from running late, to where to position myself, to who to seek out in advance.

At best these were neutral scenarios. However, often these were negative: no one will want to talk to me, I’ll say the wrong thing, I will turn up at the wrong venue.

Quite frankly that makes you stressed, and stress tends to lead to more stress! Don’t get me wrong, stress is a great resource that gets your body pumping and ready to deal with that puma that is about to attack you, only there aren’t that many pumas lurking in modern social situations. We need to remind our brains of this.

So my brain hack? As well as imagining all the different scenarios, I’m now adding in one positive potential outcome each time too. I’m going to concentrate more on the positives. 

My husband has been asking me to do this for years – he’s said “Why do you have to be so negative?” But in asking that, I understood that he wanted me to think no negative thoughts. That was too much of a leap. 

Instead, I’ve now realised that I have to go one step at a time. So I’m not banishing all my fears, just nudging myself more towards the positive in a gentle fashion and learning that skill.

Thinking of positives rewires your brain (neuroplasticity), which literally makes you feel good!

Further Resources

There’s many reasons why people might find social spaces overwhelming ranging from ADHD, Autism to being an introvert. I’m a fan of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which can provide help to deal with these situations (MoodGym is a respected online resource, a bit like Trailhead), but you’ve got to choose the right solution for you. That will involve experimentation. If you do choose to go down a therapeutic route, my pro tip is that getting on with your practitioner is key for it to be effective.

Huge thanks go to Sam Conniff and Katherine Templar Lewis and their Uncertainty Experts short course/immersive documentary, which produced a number of “eureka” moments around managing the fear of the unknown. And to the ever wonderful Justyna Krajewska for her all-round improvements in the preparation of this article.

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