Your heart sinks. You want nothing more than to run back to your room.
What happened? Did you humiliate yourself? Did you realize you're wearing mismatched shoes? No, you just walked into a room full of strangers.
It may be because you're an introvert, which Psychology Today describes as someone who is "drained by social encounters and energized by solitary, often creative pursuits."
You're not alone. According to Susan Cain, author of the New York Times bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, up to half of the population in the United States could be introverts.
How do introverts survive in a society that values gregariousness, boldness, and being the life of the party?
Here are some ways I have been able to make the most of networking events and other social situations--while honoring my introspective nature.
1. Stack the deck
Don't show up at a big live event and attempt to make cold connections. Instead, before the event, connect with a few people who'll also be attending. These should be people you may have connected with in social media, but whom you've never met before. Arrange to meet for coffee or sit together at lunch, or organize dinner with a small group of people.
This gives you a context in which to meet people for the first time, which will make the face-to-face meeting much easier. Smaller groups are also more manageable for introverts, so if necessary, create your own.
2. Focus on the person in front of you
Aim to have one-on-one conversations. Without making the conversation sound like an interrogation, make it your mission to find something interesting about the other person. Dig for common interests and experiences. If it helps, imagine you're a journalist whose assignment is to produce a compelling feature about the person in front of you.
Really listen. Don't think of what you're going to say next. That will come naturally when you actually pay attention to what the other person is saying. Fortunately, introverts are usually good listeners to begin with.
Ask yourself how you might be able to help that person out. What simple but valuable thing could you do? Could you introduce him or her to someone, send a useful article, or give practical help using your expertise? Now's the time to ask for the person's business card and take notes. When appropriate, arrange to meet again outside the event, so you can learn more about him or her.
3. Compete only with yourself
It's easy to feel disheartened and discouraged when you see the savvy networker amassing dozens of new connections at each event, while you struggle to make a handful. Instead of comparing yourself with them, focus on doing better and better with each networking opportunity.
It also helps to aim for quality rather than quantity. Don't think you have to make a dozen new contacts after attending an event. Instead, aim to make just one new, good connection. Next time, aim for two, and so on. You're not in a race.
Networking and building relationships take time, so be patient with the process and with yourself. One way to always move forward is to commit to the daily practice of helping somebody out. Take a sticky note, write "Do one nice thing for someone today," and post it in the middle of your computer monitor. Until you've actually done something nice for somebody, you're not allowed to begin your work for the day.
"What goes around, comes around" applies to networking, too. But not usually in the ways you expect! You can't control the whole process, and you can't predict the outcomes. That's what makes networking fun and exciting. Even for introverts.