Yesterday, I attended a networking function. You know the type, people standing around in a room with business cards in hand and an agenda in mind. The context of this environment is one of constant social maneuvering. One is supposed to be friendly but not too personal, professional but not unapproachable, informative but not detailed. This maze of unspoken hoop-jumping often brings up anxious feelings for individuals.
It isn’t hard to imagine feeling a bit intimated by the whole process, because each one of us has been in the situation. The main idea is that you are supposed to sell yourself as 100% confident, when really what you feel is nervous and overstimulated by the people, conversations, and expectations. It can be difficult and exhausting to say the very least. You compare yourself to those that appear to glide through the process wishing you had that skill set. And in your more honest moments you most likely think about how, at least, you are not as uncomfortable seeming as the man in the corner looking down at his feet as if to avoid any and all interaction. There is a spectrum of possibility. You fall somewhere in the middle…some days on the lower side and others on the higher.
It is pretty obvious that this scenario is rather common but not exactly ideal. We want to feel positive, interesting, and self-assured when interacting in group situations. So what happens when the frazzled feelings of insecurity take hold?
Consider looking at the situation with curiosity instead of anxiety. The moment you feel that speedy heart rate and think way too many negative thoughts… just ask yourself questions about other people and start paying attention to how they interact. The idea I often call “going meta” where you take a bird’s eye view of the situation and look at it as if you were working to understand it rather than be directly within it. Here are a few example questions:
Why did that person pick that outfit to wear?
What do I think about the conversation I just overheard?
Did that person just flirt with another person?
What exactly would create a situation as to where I would go and talk with that person?
How did that person just insert themselves into the conversation with ease?
What allowed that person to actively engage in friendly banter?
When did that person decide to move on and talk to another?
How does the conversation flow for the person that everyone is talking to?
There was a group of three men talking with one another in a more casual way. It gave the impression that these people knew each other and had more reference of one another beyond just this event. One man was very tall, wearing all black, and standing in such a way as to portray he was more in control of the conversation. One could watch his stance, his body language with the other men, and follow his eyes to see what was keeping his attention. And when one listened to his words, it would be easy to pick up that he was a massage therapist, English was not his first language, and that he had opinions about current events. Without ever saying a word, one could pick up a tremendous amount of detail. This was a man who appeared confident, aware, and might be considered intimidating to others.
There is a natural moment of approach anxiety with any new person or group. However, that very human moment can be transformed into the skill set of learning about another person. Walking up to this man with a big personality could be daunting. Yet, when you take on the moment as an experiment to discover as much as possible about him, then it becomes less about how you will be afraid or make yourself appear foolish. It instead becomes about connecting with another person on various elements of the conversation. And isn’t this what we are all hoping for anyway? We want people to enjoy talking with us, feel at ease, and want to spend more time together. This happens when we are genuinely curious about life, ideas, and even the random foreign massage therapist at a networking event.
All it takes to move from anxiety to curiosity is to ask yourself and those around you questions. Give it a try to see how it shifts the dynamics!