For introverts, networking events can be a source of dread. The format itself—a crowd full of strangers hoping to make a strong impression—is anathema to those who flourish in environments that are quieter or feel less transactional.
But, according Holly Raider, a clinical professor of management and managing director of executive education at the Kellogg School of Management, introverts can be just as skilled at networking as extroverts if they learn to ignore the crowd and focus on shaping individual conversations.
“I am frequently asked how to build networks if you are an introvert and dislike networking events,” Raider says. “My impression is the people asking believe they just need to accept that building a business network is a necessary part of business, or that they simply need to figure out how to manage anxiety. Instead, introverts can learn to thrive in the experience more than they might ever have imagined. And their introversion can be harnessed as a networking superpower.”
She offers four tips for introverts looking to succeed at—and actually enjoy—networking.
Prepare a Repertoire of Questions—but Maintain a Curious Mindset.
Part of what makes networking tough is coming up with non-superficial things to say on the spot. But there is no reason you can’t plan ahead, says Raider. She recommends developing a “repertoire” of questions, including conversation starters, follow-ups, and open-ended questions, each of which express interest and give the addressee a wide degree of latitude in how they might respond.
“You want people to feel at ease and engaged, so ask questions that will help nurture dialogue,” Raider says. “Avoid questions where the answer might be strained, socially isolating, or a dead end. People will have a lot to say—and they’ll enjoy talking to you—if they’re prompted in the right way.”
When it comes to conversation starters, Raider suggests starting with something expected, such as “What are your responsibilities?” But she recommends having second and third questions that go a bit deeper, such as “What is capturing your focus these days?” or “What interesting trends are you tracking?”
By listening carefully—often a strong quality of introverts—you will pick up clues that can help you make your next questions even more interesting to answer.
“These follow-on questions will help you feel confident as a conversation partner while helping the other person to be a good raconteur,” Raider says.
Similarly, if you listen closely to what excites others, you are more apt to find shared interests, values, and experiences. This can turn otherwise transactional meet-and-greets into forums for building relationships, since people tend to make and sustain connections with others who are similar.
“If you don’t seem genuinely interested in the answer, you might as well not ask the question,” Raider says. “But if you’re truly curious, you don’t have to fake anything, and that will show.”
You should also prepare to respond to these questions yourself—after all, it is natural for a conversation partner to volley back whatever you’ve just asked them. Reflect on what excites you most in your work, studies, hobbies, or family. Having this clarity in advance will make you more confident and genuinely engaging to others.
Choose Conversation Partners Wisely
There’s a widespread assumption that people are usually interested in networking up—an assumption that deepens the introvert’s sense that networking is a dirty business.
“The stigma around networking has to do with the sense that it’s all about individual ambition,” Raider says. “We picture a cocktail party where everyone’s just out to impress or climb to the next rung.”
At crowded networking events, it is unlikely that anyone is going to have a long, relationship-building conversation with the CEO. Too many people are trying to get a moment with her.