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The psychologists' guide to networking

The idea of #introducing themselves to a room of strangers fills many business owners with dread. They know networking is important for growing their business, however they loathe it all the same. But what is it that makes people feel so uncomfortable ?

Paul Russell is the co-founder of #training company Luxury Academy and has an MSc in occupational psychology. He says people get nervous before networking events because of a fear of rejection. The danger is that this fear can itself create an awkward situation.

“It’s human nature to visualise what will happen in the future. It is part of our internal self-preservation #mechanism to imagine what will happen in a difficult or frightening situation,” Russell says. “But those who perceive #themselves as socially anxious are more likely to imagine or predict that they will embarrass themselves in hypothetical stressful social situations. The challenge with this is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Dr Lynda Shaw works as a cognitive neuroscientist and psychologist, advising business people and #entrepreneurs. She says fear releases stress hormones, which play havoc with the cognitive functions that are crucial to networking success. “Fear causes cortisol to be released into the brain, which makes it harder to think creatively and remember things,” she says.

However, the prognosis isn’t as bad as it sounds. For those who feel they are forever about to make a faux pas, psychologists have made a discovery that should bring some comfort. The “pratfall effect”, first popularised by Harvard University psychologist Elliot Aronson, shows that displays of weakness and fallibility make us more likeable.

Richard Shotton, deputy head of evidence at media agency Manning GottliebOMD, agrees that a touch of modesty will go a long way at networking event, but warns that there are limits to this technique. “The weakness shouldn’t involve your core competence – that would be like a restaurant admitting its food tastes bad. Also, if you do admit a weakness, you need to have already established a general level of competence. Aronson’s experiment showed that while successful people who admitted a weakness became more appealing, those who were [already] seen as incompetent beforehand became less appealing.”

Shotton says admitting weakness is the basis of many advertising campaigns, but the choice of confession is highly tactical. The “good things come to those that wait” campaign by drinks brand Guinness is a good example. “It’s best to admit a weakness that is the mirror image of your strength. Guinness may take longer to pour but boy, it’s worth it,” he says.

#Making conversation

One of the hardest parts of networking is entering the room and knowing where to start. Shaw tends to head for the drinks table, where many conversations are naturally struck up. However, if that fails, she suggests scanning the room and observing the body language of those present. “If people are in a tight huddle then they don’t want to be disturbed. But if you see two people facing outwards, it should be fairly easy to join them,” she says.

The worst thing that can happen is you don't make a connection and you never see these people again

Christine Buske Shaw suggests reading up on news and events prior to the event to ensure you have a few things to talk about. She’ll also admit she “doesn’t know anyone here” and says this can often create a “me too” response, or the offer of a few introductions.

Remember, she adds, not every conversation is crucial. A few light-hearted meetings and shared jokes can help get you in the right frame of mind and make the event more productive. “As you enjoy yourself, your brain releases dopamine, the motivator, and serotonin, the happy chemical. Others will also enjoy your company more,” says Shaw.

Russell teaches a three-pronged approach to networking called the ARE strategy, which stands for anchor, reveal and encourage. Find common ground with someone (anchor), reveal something about yourself and encourage others to talk. “Everyone’s favourite subject is themselves,” he adds.


Dr Christine Buske has lectured in neuroscience and studied behavioural psychology and is now product manager at academic social media platform Mendeley. She says, until her early 20s, she was incredibly shy and was afraid of public speaking and mixer events. However, Buske’s career ambitions forced her to confront her anxieties until she became “desensitised”. Though introverts will always feel some trepidation at networking meetings, she says, practice will help them perform better.

“You can’t change your personality, but you can change your behaviour and your reactions to a given situation,” says Buske. “If you are very nervous about networking, the best thing you can do is to do more of it.

“Adults at business meetings don’t normally laugh at people. The worst thing that can happen is that you don’t make a connection and you never see these people again.”

  • #Preparation can help overcome anxiety. Get a list of attendees, do some research on those you want to meet beforehand and read up on recent news and events.

  • Think #positively and relax. Remember the worst case scenario of a networking event is not that bad.

  • Make the #aim of the event helping others and making connections. “Humans are social creatures and we herd together for mutual benefit. If someone helps us, we feel bound to repay the favour,” Buske says.

  • Be #prepared to admit that you don’t know anyone and be open to revealing shortcomings, especially if it implies a strength.

  • Practise.


  • #Talk about #yourself all night. No one wants to listen to the self-obsessed.

  • Hand out business cards without good reason. “Take my card” is a cliche, only hand them to people you want to meet again.

  • '#Forget to listen. Showing interest in others is key as it makes the speakers feel good and enables us to learn.

  • #Remain in a huddle with people you know. It’s easy to stay in your comfort zone but you will not make new contacts.

  • #Forget to follow up. If you say you are going to call then you should. People respect those who are true to their word.

  • Credit -#Guardianfeatures

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