Overcome social anxiety and network like a boss

The world is moving on post-pandemic and face to face networking events are returning. For the confident extrovert that’s music to their ears. For the socially anxious it can be a terrifying thought.


Of course, we’re all a little out of practice thanks to working from home and attending events online but it won’t take long for confident networkers to dust off their in-person networking muscles and put the rest of us to shame. Further raising the stakes for socially anxious adults who need to network for work.  


What’s the difference between social anxiety and shyness?

With shyness, you are able to recognise your discomfort and progress through your discomfort to a level of comfort. A person who suffers from social anxiety will be overwhelmed by the prospect of the discomfort and may feel nauseas, even vomit, beforehand and may not even engage with their discomfort.


What does this look like you might ask? Well, imagine you are in a sales role and you need to attend a conference to introduce yourself to key contacts and discuss mutually beneficial opportunities. If you are shy, you may initially be daunted by the task and as a result enlist the support of others and plan how to approach the situation. The initial daunting thought transforms to a less uncomfortable feeling as a result of careful planning and confidence in a well thought through plan to execute. As you start to execute on your plan you relax into the task.   


If you have social anxiety triggered by networking, the idea of what needs to be done is overwhelming and the idea of creating a plan to execute is terrifying. As a result, you likely procrastinate and don’t develop a networking plan. Near the time of the conference, you may start to feel anxious and become moody, you may even become unwell and decide not to attend due to ill-health. Or you may decide to send someone else who you consider more effective at networking than you.


What is social anxiety?

Social anxiety occurs as a result of internalised fears which aren’t usually based in reality, and the person knows this. Yet, they are unable to interrupt the feedback loop and they fear they will say or do something that leads to harsh judgment, ridicule or feelings of humiliation, embarrassment, or worse.


Often social anxiety is experienced with physical, emotional and behavioural aspects and results in attempts to avoid the particular discomfort. Physical symptoms can include increased heart-rate, sweating, dizziness, dry throat and mouth, upset tummy, clenching, shaking or trembling.


Emotional symptoms include excessive fear or worry, nervousness, and obsessive concerns about an aspect of themselves e.g., red or sweaty face, sweaty hands, or splotches on their face. Negative thoughts are also present, particularly rumination and catastrophizing which lead to feelings of overwhelm.


Strategies that a person with social anxiety will employ include using technology to avoid physical contact, dropping out of events at the last possible opportunity, and withdrawing from social activities. They may speak very fast, abruptly, or interrupt others when attending social activities. In my experience these people also tend to self-medicate with alcohol and other drugs at social functions to make them bearable.


Interestingly statistics for social anxiety vary globally however the rates are highest in more affluent countries. In Australia, it is estimated 8.4% of adult Australians meet the criteria for social anxiety disorder and will experience social anxiety sometime in their lifetime. It is more prevalent amongst women and where expectations of high performance are expected.


How to network with social anxiety

Social anxiety is usually trigger based and, with practice, can decrease and eventually disappear, if you keep working at it. Here are 9 strategies you can use to decrease your social anxiety over time.


1. Reframe what networking is for you. While networking can be about selling it is also about more than that. Networking is about growing your contact list, expanding your influence, and increasing the likelihood of future opportunities. It is also about sharing knowledge, learning, connecting and being with a group of people with similar interests.

2. Prepare yourself for the event. No matter how confident you are about the networking event you are going to, you need to prepare talking points in case you become tongue-tied. If that is a concern for you, practice potential conversations and the avenues they may go down with others. You can do this with family and close friends or even with yourself in the mirror. Often by practicing the conversations, it helps to organise your thinking about them.

3. Incorporate comforting elements at the event. You may think this silly but wearing comfortable clothes is a big one. You may even consider wearing a lucky jacket or your favourite scent. My comforting element is my lipstick colour.

4. Find a social networking colleague. I often networked with colleagues as it made it easier to ‘work the room’ and it also made the events more fun. Looking back, I was probably someone’s networking buddy without even knowing it.

5. Avoid the alcohol and other substances. While it may seem like a good idea at the time, many clients have been caught out with this one. Chances are you are considering this to take the ‘edge off’ and unfortunately, they will only lower your inhibitions and lead to greater anxiety as their effects wear off.  

6. Set small manageable goals. Social anxiety can decrease and it’s effects erased with practice. As you become more practiced at networking your competency and efficacy will grow, leading to an increase in self-confidence. Over time you will probably look back and laugh at how anxious you were at networking.

7. Actively communicate. When you’re feeling anxious it’s easy to forget to maintain eye contact and provide non-verbal cues such as nodding, so remind yourself to do this.

8. Debrief your networking experience and write it down. Recognise what worked well, what you would like to do differently next time and having it written down it will provide objective information for when you refer back to the event. Often without anything concrete to refer back to, we naturally assume the worst and forget all the positives.

9. Have an action plan for when your anxiety starts to interfere with your networking goals. Everyone has their own go-to strategies however you may want to include breathing techniques, reminding yourself that what you are experiencing is self-judgmental experience and it will pass.


If getting back into the networking swing of things terrifies you, and if you are tired of playing small and hanging back in the background because of your social anxiety, book in a confidential call with me and we can explore how you can overcome your social anxiety and network like you were born to do it.

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