Let's put aside the Federal Government stuff for a bit and talk about something gross for a second - networking. It's not really gross... it just feels gross to some people. And, I'm not talking about social networking on Linkedin or Facebook. I'm talking about old-school networking - handshakes, eye contact, coffee, nibbles, talking shop, and suppressed farts.
I think the anxieties revolve around false perceptions of what people think networking is. You don't REALLY network to get jobs, clients, referrals, or anything. Networking isn't about what you can GET. Networking is a slightly more formal opportunity to connect and to expand your "network" of connections. Your just making connections... you are CONNECTING.
Is Networking even important?
Yes. Of course it's important. I've seen various figures but anywhere from 70% to 90% of new jobs are filled through relationships. Hell, the job I landed right out of my MBA program was through a relationship (because I knew a guy who knew a lady that was the HR director for a regional office in the government). But you may understand the importance and still have a problem talking to strangers, self-promotion, feelings of inferiority, cynicism, or just general social anxiety.
How do you overcome that stuff?
Above all, you have to acknowledge the feelings you're having. Those feelings are OK and a ton of people have them but you still have to navigate those feelings.
Here are three tactics you can use to overcome the anxieties of a professional necessity.
1. Make friends.
You know that scene in Forrest Gump where little Forrest doesn't get on the bus for the first day of school because the bus driver is "technically" a stranger? Then he introduces himself, gets over the stranger danger, and moves on with his life. Of course you know it:
Anyway, there's a lesson in there for new networkers. If you can focus your intentions on making friends or "being friendly", you'll probably feel better about the tone and pace of the interactions.
2. Realize you're not the only naked one
I've heard folks analogize networking to a dream where they are the only naked person in a place where everyone is clothed. I feel like a lot of networking events, instead of you having clothes, is more like everyone being naked. You're not the only person that feels vulnerable and in need of help. I was at a networking event in OKC recently where I felt kind of out of place. It was an event with a Chamber of Commerce and they invited a lot of local politicians, civic leaders, and local business owners. Dorky Riley Ross, federal employee and budding writer felt pretty out of place and self-conscious. But I did the only thing you could do in that situation, I just started having conversations with folks and soon realized that these people needed things too. One woman I spoke to was campaigning in my district as a State Representative and needed votes. Though she wasn't actually "campaigning" in that moment she was trying to do the thing that networking does - expand her network of connections. I put one of her signs in my front yard.
3. Know and Trust that you can help others
Again, expanding your network isn't all about what you can get. I'd like to challenge you to look for ways to help people. Even if you're a high school or college student, you have life experience and that experience is valuable. Time and time again, I've had the chance to talk to someone at a party or event and offer some assistance or knowledge about the VA disability claims process. There are 23 million Veterans in the US so the opportunity for me to bump into someone that is affected by the VA Compensation process (directly or indirectly) is HUGE. This allows me to advocate for Veterans but also advocate for VA through my expertise. If you teach yoga, you may be able to help someone come up with some poses to help their back. If you hunt, you may be able to offer some solutions to their shoulder pain. If you work on cars in your spare time, you might be able to share the name of the place where you buy your parts. If you've struggled with eating disorders, you might be able to provide the name of a counselor or website that's helped you. There are so many ways you can help folks so just keep an open mind about where the conversation can go.
I've put together a presentation on this subject with a lot more value added through personal storytelling. If you want to talk about giving this presentation at your school or for your organization, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.