I have been chosen to represent my company in a new professional association. I can’t believe they chose me — me, the hopeless introvert. I am not good at networking or making new friends. How do I break the ice and become Mr. Friendly?
From the way you worded your question, I’d say your self-awareness and sense of humor are a good start. Just because you’re not an extrovert does not mean you’re not the right guy for this role. Obviously, your company is comfortable sending you out as the face and voice of the organization. From this fact, I will assume that you are likeable and trustworthy.
I would not worry so much about breaking the ice as building solid relationships. You might wish you could emulate people who gracefully “work the room,” befriending many people at meetings and functions. But don’t confuse their easygoing style with actual effectiveness. Often, these people have a dynamic presence but their conversations lack substance. It’s much better to get to know a few people and gain their trust than to make the acquaintance of many people and not have the conversation move beyond the food and the weather.
Once you have trusting relationships with a few people, you will find that your new friends will introduce you to other members of the association. Their introductions will often come with endorsements, which will accelerate the trust in your new relationships.
In order to build mutual trust, you need to focus on the right content in the relationship. Getting past small talk is essential. It is my experience that great relationships in this type of professional social setting evolve by going through a three-phase conversational process.
The first phase is learning about what others do in their work and in their free time. Knowing what a person does can reveal a lot, but, in some cases, it can be misleading. That’s why it’s important to take it to the second phase by learning how a person feels about his or her working life. Simply asking “Do you like what you do?” can open up a world of information and facilitate a stream of productive relating.
The third phase in building a trusting relationship in this type of setting is to explore beliefs. In a way, this is taking step two to the next level, because what people believe determines what they hold close in their heart. When people are willing to share their beliefs and, especially, their reasons for believing something, then you can begin to get a strong understanding of who they are at their core.
Of course, this has to be a two-way street. If you expect others to share what they do, how they feel about it, and what they believe, you’ll need to reciprocate. Otherwise, you can come off as a snoop, a busybody or an amateur psychotherapist.
Be prudent in your conversations, and let the depth of the conversation flow naturally. If you try to push through the phases too fast, people may think you’re following a contrived formula. Remember the golden rule in this setting. Many other participants are nervous or unsure of themselves. Seek to make someone else comfortable, and you will find comfort.
Catholic business consultant Dave Durand is online at DaveDurand.com.