Networking is not a Fear Factor Event

Carsi Hughes Ph.D.

Over the years, I have routinely encouraged potential employees to take advantage of networking opportunities to help further their careers. In fact, I have cited networking as a crucial component to obtaining a job. Most people hear that advice, give a slight knowing nod of understanding, and the topic is dropped. Recently I noticed something quite odd when I gave my usually plug for networking; in addition to the nods of understanding, there was a palpable sensation in the room. This sensation could only be described as FEAR. Perhaps in the past I had attributed the overt sweating and painful facial expressions to mass excitement, but now there was no mistaking it. Many psychologists are afraid of networking.

There is no need to fear, dear colleagues! Networking is not a nebulous, genetically-driven skill appropriate only for realtors and used-car salesmen. Networking is a clear concept associated with specific behavior that yields a desired result. This article will clarify the mysteries of networking and prepare you for your next networking opportunity.

First of all…what is networking? Simply put (credit to Webster), it’s an extended group of people with similar interests of concerns who interact and remain in informal contact for mutual assistance and support. Nothing scary about that! The remainder of this article will focus on exactly how to go about being a successful networker.

First: prepare yourself to network. For example, if you will be at the IPA Convention in November, decide which workshops you would like to attend and which attendees you would most like to meet. Your goal should not be to meet every presenter at the convention. Your goal should not be to become best friends with a certain attendee. Both goals are unrealistic and will set you up to fail. Once you know who you’d like to meet, prepare something to say.

What you say should have 3 parts:
1. A quick personal introduction.
Although this is very simple, you’d be surprised at how many people have sudden paralysis when it comes to introducing themselves. Say hello to the person (by name if at all possible) and identify yourself with something appropriate to the event. For example, at IPA you might meet me and say, “Hi Dr. Hughes. I’m Dr. Wonderful with the Sanity Clinic.”

2. Make a statement to initiate a conversation.
For those of you in the dating world, this is akin to “What’s your sign?” only without the astrological bent. Some examples are:
*How long have you been member of IPA?”
*Is this your first convention? What do you think of it?
*What did you think of last year’s convention?
*Have you seen Dr. Excellent speak before?
*What workshops are you attending today?

3. Ask several open-ended questions to keep the dialogue going.
This should flow naturally from the topic; just remember to keep things open-ended. Nothing shuts down a conversation faster than a yes-no answer. Some examples:
*What do you feel is the most important part of your research?
*How did you go about putting all the information together?
*What do you find the most surprising about your experience?

4. Schedule a follow-up and/or exit gracefully.
Along with the initial introduction, most people have a difficult time getting out of a conversation. If you are interested in being in contact with this person, by all means try to set up a follow-up. After that, it is best to leave the conversation before it fades on its own.

An example:
*This is all really interesting. Would you like to get together after the workshops to talk about this further?
*Can I send you an email with my input?
*Can I give you a call sometime to go over your ideas? Here’s my card.
Even if your potential connection does not want to speak with you further, you can still exit optimistically. For example:
*good meeting you. Thanks for all your help.
*best of luck with that…I’ll let you get back to your work now.
*I enjoyed talking with you, but I should really be moving along.

Now that you know the basics of networking, three general comments. First, have a good attitude. Topics of conversation should not be about how terrible your current job is, how you don’t know where to find the coffee, or how you got stuck in traffic. No one wants to meet a complainer. Second, watch your body language. When you speak with someone, face them. Look at them. Smile. Listen attentively and when listening, give non-verbal clues that you are paying attention (head nods, expressive eyes, and appropriate affect). Finally, PRACTICE NETWORKING. Practice initiating conversation with others. Practice keeping a conversation going. Practice exiting. The more you do it, the easier it becomes.

I don’t actually ever go to any workshops or conventions. How am I supposed to network?
A: Reconnect with colleagues. When was the last time you communicated with people who have really helped you with your career? Probably years. Touch base with these people on a regular basis.

Q: I hate to only contact people when I need something. It just doesn’t feel right.
A: Then be sure to contact people when you don’t need anything. Perhaps you can help someone out with information or a referral. If not, contact them just to check in.

Q: So I’m supposed to plan out dialogue scenarios. Won’t I appear fake and rehearsed?
A: Perhaps if you are reading from an index card you might. More likely, if you have practiced and achieved a comfort level with your conversation skills, you will actually be more relaxed and confident than before.

Q: I heard somewhere that it’s best not to look directly at a person when talking but instead take breaks by looking around the room. Is this true?
A: No. Short of getting into a staring contest during a conversation, it is still best to keep your attention focused. Studies have shown that people who look around during a conversation can be perceived as either disinterested or untrustworthy.

Q: I’m sorry, but networking just doesn’t work. Last convention I brought along 100 business cards, handed them all out, and my career has gone nowhere.
A: Did you even read the article? First, change your attitude, pronto. Next, your goal should be to meet A FEW people each time you network. Now ask yourself, do I have anything to offer these people I want in my network? If you do, offer it. And finally, a key part of this process is taking time ON A REGULAR BASIS to stay in touch. A 10 second introduction with a cheap business card 12 months ago will produce the result you got: nothing.

Q: How did you know my business cards were cheap?
A: Lucky guess.

Best of luck with your newfound networking skills! If you’re looking for a job, start by networking with me. Contact me at to receive job leads (free to current IPA members) or to post available positions (free to everyone).

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