Fear of Networking: Leaving 'Stranger Danger' Behind

Leadership is the ability to hide your panic from others.
--Lao Tzu

When I became CEO of a public company, I was afraid. It was a big step into a very public position, and even though I knew I could do the job, I still was fearful of messing it up. Then my friend, John Cardis, took me to lunch and shared a story of his time as an actor in L.A. He was turned down for numerous movie spots, and his agent suggested lessons from an acting coach. The coach told John that before each audition he was to walk around the house and say, "I'm perfect for the part." After that his success rate skyrocketed.

John suggested I do the same thing. He told me to walk around my house and say out loud, "I'm perfect for the part." I did, and it worked. I went into the office each day with confidence that I would be great in my role as CEO.

The truth is that unless we are psychopaths, we are all afraid at one time or another, especially when we put ourselves into unfamiliar or challenging situations -- in other words, when we get out of our comfort zones. And for many people, the idea of strategic networking (meeting others with the goal of forming mutually-beneficial relationships) produces just that kind of fear.

But let's talk about the reality of fear and networking. First, once you become an adult "stranger danger" is a fallacy. As James A. Murphy wrote, "At one time, our friends were just strangers to us. What if, as we pass all of the 'strangers' in our lives, we looked at these strangers as if they could be friends?" Strangers can provide access to all the resources you might need. Isn't it worth your time to approach strangers as potential friends and allies?

Second, if you go into a networking opportunity fearfully, what kind of signals are you sending to the people you meet? Anthony Robbins does an exercise at many of his seminars where he asks the audience to turn to those around them and shake their hands as if they were afraid. Most people put their hands out timidly, keep their distance from each other, say "Hello" quietly, and then break contact quickly. Sometimes they don't even look at each other!

That's an extreme example, of course -- but if you are fearful when you meet people, it will show up in your face, voice, and body. Try my friend John Cardis' suggestion: before you leave the house for a networking event, walk around and say to yourself, "I'm perfect for the part!" Spend a few minutes thinking about the people you will meet as possible friends, business partners, and allies. After all, the stranger you encounter today might be someone that brings great things to your life and your career.

My favorite book on fear is Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, by Susan Jeffers, published in 1987. Several of the key concepts in this book helped me when I was overcoming my own fear and shyness as a social worker and then in corporate life. There were three ideas in particular that made an impact. First, as long as you're alive you'll have fear. It's a part of the lizard brain/fight-or-flight instinct. But second, if you don't deal with your fear, the situation will get worse, not better. And if you don't deal with it, the fear will continue to grow and can overwhelm your life.

Third, when you do deal with your fear, you usually find that it wasn't nearly as hard as you thought it would be -- and you also find that you are stronger for doing it. The ability to deal with your fear is the basis of grit, resiliency, being scrappy, getting creative and persevering when you hit the wall.

So when you walk in the door of your next networking event or conference or business meeting, leave fear behind you and think, "I'm perfect for the part!" Then look around you and find someone to connect with. (You might start with the person standing in the corner, who's probably even more afraid than you.) Walk up to him or her and do three things: smile, say hello, and listen. You might be surprised at how quickly your fear disappears, and this "stranger" becomes a new friend, ally, or valuable connection.

By Judy Robinett, author of How to Be a Power Connector: The 5+50+100 Rule for Turning Your Business Network into Profits (McGraw-Hill, 2014)

Judy Robinett is known as "the woman with the titanium digital Rolodex." One of the nation's leading experts on helping leaders develop strategic business relationships, she is the author of How to Be a Power Connector: The 5+50+100 Rule for Turning Your Business Network into Profits (McGraw-Hill, 2014). Reach her at www.judyrobinett.com or follow her on Twitter @judyrobinett.