For most of my adult professional life, I have been convinced that I hate networking, but it’s a necessary evil. When I thought of “networking events,” I imagined crowds of women and men dressed in bland-colored business suits, milling around, trading business cards, maybe doing some “schmoozing” (I’m not totally clear on what that word means, but it sounds sticky and unpleasant).  After attending a few of these events, I realized that they pretty much fit this description, except occasionally yummy snacks were served, which was great, because snacks are my favorite.

What are you supposed to do?

But I still struggled with what my contribution to these events was supposed to be, and what I was supposed to get out of them. It appeared that the goal was to get as many business cards as I could, and to make sure and hand out many as I could. So I tried that a couple times. But once I had all these business cards, what was I supposed to do with them? Was I supposed to actually call or email these people that I’d supposedly networked with, after schmoozing them for all of 5 minutes? The truth was that the business cards were useless to me, because I didn’t really know the people I’d gotten them from.

But I kept going to events, and I kept bringing business cards and trading them with other people, because everything I read about how to be successful had “NETWORKING!” plastered all over it. It must be because I’m introverted, I thought. I need to be more outgoing.

Getting to know people—one at a time.

Then one day, a subtle shift in my consciousness occurred. I was attending a professional development conference, and I had brought the requisite stack of business cards with me. I ended up sitting next to a chatty, friendly woman, and we hit it off. I spent most of the event talking with her, and when we couldn’t decide which breakout sessions to attend, we agreed to go to different ones, and share what we’d learned at lunch.

I had lots of fun getting to know my new friend.

Yes, we traded business cards, but only because we knew we’d still have more to talk about later. Unfortunately, she had to leave early, and there was still about 45 minutes left in the conference. My conscience was whining, “You should really be doing more networking. Don’t waste your time here. You’ve only gotten one business card!” I told it to shut up.

Shut up conscience, I’m tired, I said. I made a new friend, and I’m done for the day. It felt great. I finally relaxed, and ate a delicious brownie at a table all by myself, which I enjoyed immensely because I didn’t have to talk to anyone while I ate it.

Why be uncomfortable?

This got me thinking. When I’m with friends, I can be outgoing, funny, and extroverted. Stick me in a room full of people I don’t know, and I will watch and listen for quite some time before speaking up, if I speak up at all. I’ve been this way since I was a toddler. Why was I forcing myself to do things that make me feel uncomfortable, just to collect a stack of business cards I’ll never use?

Not forcing it.

At the professional development seminar, I made a new friend because we ended up sitting next to each other, and we had things in common. We clicked, and it wasn’t forced. Her contact information was valuable to me, because I was actually going to contact her.

Just making friends.

It was then that I had my epiphany: Wow! I thought. Networking is just making friends! I’ve been networking for years and I had no idea!

So if you are like me, a mostly introverted person who is only extroverted around your friends, and you think you hate networking, RELAX! Stop trading business cards. All you have to do is make and keep friends.

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