Is This Seat Taken?

Whatever our comfort level with networking, walking into a large networking event can be daunting.  We enter with trepidation as questions swirl in our minds:

  • Will I know anyone? 
  • Will anyone talk to me? 
  • Will it be uncomfortable? 
  • Do I have anything to add? 

As such, what often happens is that we seek out people who we know and we cling to them.  And, hey, it goes both ways – they tend to cling to us, too!  I’m suggesting this:  Don’t do it!  Take a deep breath, gather your confidence and take a seat somewhere else.

Instead of gravitating to those who you already know, seek those who you don’t and make attending the event an exercise in expanding the pie.  In fact, think of it this way:  Some people, in order to force themselves to get a little more exercise, find a spot in the parking lot far from the door so that they can get in a few extra steps.  Though slightly less comfortable, the long term benefits outweigh the momentary discomfort. 

When we go to the trouble to attend networking events, we should venture to connect with others who we don’t know, or don’t know well, to establish roots for relationships.  A few examples…

The Silent Auction.  Every two years, my son’s elementary school plans a parents-only night out, typically a silent auction, to raise money for special programs at the school.  This year’s event was a lot of fun.  There were tons of items for purchase, the school raised several thousand dollars.  In addition to the silent auction, there was a lovely sit down dinner, dessert and live auction.

During the first part of the evening, Marc and I were so busy visiting with other parents and looking at the auction items that we neglected to select a table at which to sit for dinner.  By the time we got over to the dining room, there were no seats with people we knew, so we took two open spots with three couples who we’d never met. 

Of course, there were those first awkward moments when we initially took the seats as the eight of us looked at one another and silently wondered, “and, who are you?”  Well, the lack of familiarity passed just as quickly as it came on.  Just a moment later, serendipity struck!  On so many levels, we found instant connections.  The group we sat with was delightful – new friends made, tons of interest for several of us to connect 1:1 outside of the auction, fun had by all!  We felt so lucky to have waded into unfamiliar waters.  It didn’t escape my attention that if there had been open seating at a table where we knew people, we would not have had the opportunity to connect with others like we did.

The Benefit Dinner.  I heard a story about a business instructor from the local community college who secured tickets for herself and 12 of her students to attend a benefit dinner honoring a group of stellar small businesses in the community.  The students who do not often have the chance to attend such functions were excited to attend.  However, the professor noticed right away that the group seemed to cling together like lemmings!  She urged them to disperse, to go meet new people.  Finally, a few brave souls did so – in groups of two or three and, true to form, magic happened!  The students reported that, curious about the “young people” at the dinner, several business leaders approached them to ask what brought them to the event, what school they attended, what career paths they hoped to pursue.  The students, though initially uncomfortable, garnered the courage to wade into the fray and get to know professionals from the community who may later be instrumental to the students as they seek internship and career guidance and opportunities.

The Cocktail Reception.  I attended a professional event recently.  It was during the work week, after a busy day at the office, outside it was dark and cold and what I really wanted to do was just go home.  However, I wanted to show my support for the organizers so I forced myself to go to the event.  Showing up by myself, I had those typical feelings of uncertainty not knowing how I would fit into the crowd, but I walked in anyway.  Boy was I glad I attended!  In the short 45 minutes that I was there, I met a woman who’s name I’d been hearing for months but had never connected with personally – we’ve scheduled coffee a few weeks from now.  I also reconnected with a long-time friend and mentor who it had been several months since I’d seen – what a joy to see him again.  And, I met a fellow author and long-time marketing executive from here in town.  Though brief, our conversation was one of the most fruitful.  Not only did we exchange contact information, but we have since exchanged books and entered into an email dialogue of sorts.  One of the things we got to talking about was meeting professional contacts at networking events.  He had this to say:

At the height of my days at [my marketing firm], I used to tell our employees that no more than two from the agency could sit at the same table at events we went to. That enhanced networking exposure for them and the agency. My personal discipline was to wait until everyone had been seated and then seek out a table that had an empty chair where I knew the fewest people. It was tough at first, but one of the best things I ever did in terms of meeting people and getting smarter. 

I said to him, “BRAVO!” both for setting the expectation for his team and for practicing what he preached.  What a great role model.  How lucky I feel to have made his acquaintance… at an event that I did not even feel like attending!

These are but a few examples of gaining exposure to new contacts at networking events.  The point to all of this is, by stepping just slightly out of one’s comfort zone, endless possibilities await!  All it takes is a little extra effort.   

So, where will you sit next time you attend a professional event?  Difficult as it may be, please consider taking a seat in unknown territory.  Guaranteed:  With just a bit of effort, you won’t be a stranger there for long. 

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