I made it through one of life’s awkward phases. I’ll make it through this one too.

networking

So far in my 26 years of life, I’ve experienced two major awkward phases.

The first? Middle school.

Ok, fine. If I’m being honest, it lasted a lot longer than just middle school. Otherwise known as the ‘before-and-during-braces’ phase, this stage consisted of about seven years where I starred in my own life as the (and I mean the) ugly duckling.

(If you take issue with me claiming to be the most awkward, ugly-duckling-est of them all, I’ll happily break out some photos of 11-year-old me to show you I earned that title fair and square.)

I think most of you probably went through a similar phase, right? We all had an awkward year or two (or in my case, seven) where our features didn’t quite fit our face, or vice versa. Except for that one girl.

(This is totally off topic, but can we just take a second here to hate on that one girl just a little bit?)

You know her. That girl who managed to skate through middle school and high school looking flawless. Her face grew in sync with her perfectly proportionate features. She was a swan then, and she looks the same now as she did on the first day of sixth grade, only slightly more perfect and swan-like. Meanwhile, the rest of us ugly ducklings are just praying our school photos circa 2002 don’t make an appearance at Grandma’s house the first time we bring our future husband home for Christmas.

Anyways, that was awkward life phase #1. I prevailed. I didn’t think it could get any worse than puberty, buckteeth, and the worst wardrobe decisions of all time, but then my mid-20s hit.

Here I am, slapped with an entirely new kind of awkward. I like to call this the ‘I’m-26-and-don’t-remember-how-to-make-new-friends’ phase.

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Being in your mid-20s is intense. This is the decade when you get shit done. It’s the decade when you make some of the most important decisions you’ll ever make – where to live, who to love, kids or dogs or both, career path – we’re talkin’ some pretty major stuff. And then you look around, and you realize the people you’ve surrounded yourself with your whole life have lives that look nothing like yours. They’re making decisions completely different from your own.

You’ll love those lifelong friends forever and for always, but you’re ready to widen your circle – you need friends whose present tense looks more like your own.

Wait, reality check. You’re 26 years old, and you haven’t had to actually try to make new friends since you moved into your dorm room. And even though that wasn’t really all that long ago, it was different, because, well, back then you had the power of forced proximity and beer pong on your side.

Fast forward eight years and it’s a whole new ball game. We are real-life adulting here. Making new friends isn’t as easy as initiating a drinking game.

Today, making new friends means actively looking for people or groups of people you share something in common with, working up the courage to go where those people hang out, and then working up the most courage to put yourself out there, get in on the conversation, and convince these new people you’re worth knowing.

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It’s not easy, but you should absolutely do it anyways.

Even as a bonafide extrovert, networking is something that makes me totally uncomfortable. The past few months, I’ve been challenging myself to get more comfortable in those uncomfortable spots. I’ve been spending some time stumbling my way through a few Meetups, happy hours, and young professional outings, and while I’m definitely not a networking pro quite yet, I can tell you with confidence I’m getting better.

Through my recent elbow-rubbing attempts, I’ve picked up a few networking tips I thought you could probably put to good use:

Have a drink (<–singular).

Now, I’m 100% not encouraging you to get sloppy before you attempt working your first room, but I also believe in the power of a little liquid courage. Pour yourself a glass of Pinot (I’m a cab girl, myself), take some deep breaths, shake the nerves off, and envision what a successful night of networking and relationship-building looks like. Mindset, people.

Pretend you just pulled the Queen. Now you’re the question master.

(I swear I didn’t intend for this to turn into a post about drinking games. I swear I’ve grown up and haven’t actually played a drinking game in a very long time. But I’m just gonna go with it. Circle of death, anyone? Is that just a Wisconsin thing?)

The most important thing I’ve learned in my journey to become a master networker is this: People love talking about themselves.

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At an event where you’re trying to build relationships, it is your mission to give your fellow networkers that opportunity. I think I read an article once that said the key to networking is to ask four questions in return for every one statement you make about yourself. I’ve found the only way to be good at that is to have a plan. Make a list of 5-10 questions to have ready to roll, so you’ve always got material to draw from.

Pay attention to their answers.

Now, going into an event with a list of canned questions is great and all, but what happens when you run out of material? Awkward silence, that’s what.

Instead of worrying about remembering the next question you’re going to ask while someone is giving you their answer, listen to what they’re saying. Revolutionary, I know. Again, people love talking about themselves, but they love it even more when they feel like what they have to say is actually interesting. Make them feel interesting by asking follow-up questions that dig deeper into the answer they give you.

Practice makes perfect better.

I don’t care if you’re building a business, looking for a new career opportunity, or honestly just trying to make some friends.

Networking is one of, if not the, most important skill you need to master to be successful.

You’ve heard this before, and if you’re anything like me, you probably didn’t/don’t believe it. You don’t have to believe me either, but I’m here to confirm that, slowly but surely, networking actually does get easier. Asking thoughtful questions becomes less of a stumble and more of a well-choreographed dance.

Don’t take my word for it, though. Get out there and practice, people.

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