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Your 7-Step Guide to Navigating Social Anxiety at a Networking Event

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Social anxiety morphs otherwise manageable dread into a debilitating inner dialogue. Getty Images

Several weeks ago, you reluctantly penciled a networking event into your calendar. Now you're here holding a glass of Chardonnay while coworkers and potential business connections make pleasant small talk. From an outsider's perspective, it seems as if you're having fun and listening attentively, laughing on cue with the others when someone says something funny. In your head, though, a mental teleprompter is streaming a string of garbled words that make up your networking pitch, and thoughts of inadequacy and self-criticism become obtrusive. Just another day with social anxiety.

To be fair, even the most social among us dread the networking dance. However, when you factor in social anxiety, otherwise manageable panic can easily morph into a debilitating inner dialogue. This is something that takes a valiant effort to overcome, but it's not out of reach. Use this expert-backed plan for getting a hold on anxiety and nailing your next networking event.

Set Goals and Prepare

After committing to an event, immediately set specific goals you hope to accomplish while you're there. Perhaps your goal is to meet as many executives as possible, hand your business card out to a set number of people, or pitch a new idea to someone specific.

"Make your agenda as specific as possible," advises Dr. Emma Levine, a psychologist based in New York. "This will help you to identify and problem-solve specific worries in advance. For example, if you're hoping to make a pitch or get others on board with a new idea, one solution is to briefly outline your talking points in advance. Rehearse the pitch in front of the mirror, or with a supportive partner or friend, to develop a sense of comfort and confidence."

Focus on Questions and Answers

Another smart way to prepare is to anticipate the types of questions others will ask about you, your job or your pitch. You should also consider questions that are unlikely to be asked, but which would trigger your anxiety if they were. Jot these questions down in advance and practice the answers out loud.

"The practice of generating your responses in advance will lesson your hyper-vigilance in the moment," Dr. Levine notes.

Lastly, prepare questions that you want to ask others. You can even come up with a question or two that you want to ask someone specific who you know will be in attendance. Question asking not only relieves pressure by having someone else do the talking, but it also demonstrates that you're genuinely interested in what others have to say.

Practice Mindfulness Before and During the Event

"Incorporating meditation into your routine leading up to a big event can help clear your mind and calm your anxiety, not only for the big day, but also for the stressful moments that may lead up to it," explains Dr. Barbara Nosal, a therapist and chief clinical officer at Newport Academy. "Setting aside just a few minutes in the morning to meditate can make a huge difference in setting the tone of your day."

Not sure where to begin? Dr. Nosal says to set a timer for 10 minutes, close your eyes and just breathe deeply. That's it. You don't have to sit cross-legged and you don't have to hum or touch your fingertips to your thumbs. Your mind may even wander, which is OK. Simply observe your thoughts and do your best to focus on breathing.

Before the actual networking event — in a bathroom stall, your car or somewhere quiet - carve out five to 10 minutes for personal meditation and reflection. This will help you feel more at ease and more grounded in the moment, says Nosal. If your anxiety bubbles up at the event, you can inhale deeply and steadily on the spot, or simply step away for five minutes to breathe and calm yourself down.

Be Genuine

"If you see someone at an event that you've admired from a distance, give a genuine compliment about the work she does and why you admire it," advises Levine. "When people feel complimented and understood, they are more likely to become receptive to learning about you and your ideas."

Being genuine also allows you to live more "in the moment" versus being hyper-aware and paranoid about what's going on around you.

"If you're meeting people for the first time, try to get to know them as people, not just for who they are at work. This will allow you, and the person across from you, to feel more comfortable and at ease," says Levine.

Image: Group of businesswomen in an office corridor
Group of businesswomen having break during conference, standing in the hall in modern office. Getty Images

Put the Chardonnay — and Your Phone — Down

"You might feel tempted to use alcohol to soothe your anxiety and ease your inhibitions, but this is not an effective way to cope and can interfere with all the steps you've taken to prepare for the event," notes Nosal.

She also says to avoid sitting in a corner and scrolling on your phone, which signals to people that you're not interested in engaging with them. Instead, make a valiant effort to really listen and ask questions. People notice whether you're focused on them or zoned out, and it can make all the difference in your ability to reach the goals you set before the event.

Redirect Destructive Thoughts

The first step to conquering self-defeating inner dialogue is to acknowledge their existence and absurdity. One of the best ways to do this, says Levine, is to write down those negative thoughts the second they pop into your head. Once on paper, it's easier to identify how distorted they are, and to generate more realistic thoughts to replace them.

"For example, a woman who tells herself, 'My mind will go blank and I will blow it,' is engaging in the distortion of fortunate-telling because she's predicting a negative outcome," says Levine. "A more realistic thought to replace this anticipatory self-criticism is, 'It's quite normal to feel nervous, and I usually feel much calmer once I get engaged in a conversation.'"

A second example of destructive inner dialogue is thinking, "Everyone will notice how nervous I am and will think I'm stupid," which is engaging in the distortion of mind-reading since you're predicting that everyone will notice how nervous you are and judge harshly. A more realistic substitute for this thought, Dr. Levine says, is, "Even when I feel nervous on the inside, the people I'm speaking with may not be able to observe my anxiety. In fact, I've been told that I come across as confident even when I experience loads of self-doubt."

Redirecting these types of thoughts in the moment requires a deliberate effort and much practice. However, substituting more rational responses allows you to generate a more positive perspective.

Reframe Your Anxiety as a Source of Motivation

Your anxiety may seem like the biggest hurdle to overcome, and it may even roadblock you on occasion. However, Levine notes that it's important to re-frame your anxiety, shifting it from a problem to a source of motivation.

"Implicit in all networking events are opportunities to connect with others in the service of personal and professional growth," she says. "Instead of resisting your nervousness, channel it into thoughtful problem solving and preparation in advance of the event."

After each networking event, ask yourself which specific preparation tactics helped you to feel calmer, and what thoughts continued to get in the way. Additionally, don't forget to congratulate yourself on the things you did well so you can apply the same tactics moving forward. Taking the time to reflect afterward will allow you to be even more prepared for the next event, which will inevitably quell that anxiety even further.