How To Master The Most Difficult Part Of Being An Adult

Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Networking can feel a bit like going to the dentist: You know it's important to your overall career health, but it can be so painful. So it’s understandable that you might want to take a no-nonsense approach to these events. Your time is in short supply, and really, we’d all rather spend whatever’s leftover from a 40 60-plus hour workweek at happy hour with friends, not chatting it up with random strangers. Yet, as tempting as it might be to get straight to the point with your laser-focused career questions, that tactic might not be serving you well in the long run.

“Leading in with ‘So, what do you do?’ tends to be a rapport breaker,” says Shan White, owner of Women’s Peak Performance Coaching. “When you’re asked what you do off the bat, you get the sense that the person is deciding whether you’re worthy of being schmoozed or not.”

As White puts it, building camaraderie on a personal level proves you’re someone whom they should get to know professionally, as well. Instead of trying to collect as many business cards as possible, aim to build a connection first — even if it’s only with a handful of people.

“People do business with those they know, like, and trust,” says White. “So as you walk into the event, remind yourself that your purpose is to be known, liked, and eventually, trusted.”

To help establish that trust (and make yourself feel more comfortable overall with the process), we asked some career coaches to share their top advice for navigating networking events, including some icebreakers (that cursed corporate term) to ensure the start of your conversations feels less contrived.

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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
There is one over-driving commonality that you and every networker share: The event itself. “The best thing to do is to use the context of the event to start a conversation,” says Dan Schawbel, workplace expert and author of Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success. “If there was a presentation, talk about the topic, whether you enjoyed the speaker, what you learned, and how it might apply to your business or career.”

Bonnie Marcus
, executive coach and author of The Politics of Promotion, echoes this same strategy, suggesting that one approach could be to comment on or ask questions about the organization hosting the event. Have those you’re talking to been to other events hosted by the same organization? Or are there other networking events they recommend checking out?
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
If you find yourself asking question after question and begin wondering if you’re overdoing it, rest assured that you’re probably not. The primary reason we ask questions in the first place is to establish what interests we have in common that we can then delve into further, says Schawbel. “It’s going to feel like an interview until you find some sort of experience or thread you’ve shared,” he says. “Once you find that, then the conversation can be pushed forward.”

Don't be afraid to start the conversation with a few low-key topics — the weather, Orange Is The New Black, how the Mets/Knicks/Giants/fill-in-the-blank sports team are performing. They might sound a bit generic, but once you can find a common thread, the conversation will feel more relaxed.

The key is to express genuine interest in getting to know that person. “If we are authentic and genuinely care about the questions we’re asking, it’s automatic human reciprocity that the person will start asking the same questions of us,” says White.
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
As with job interviews or presentations, you never want to go into networking events cold. In fact, when Schawbel is networking, he sets up a meeting ahead of time with someone he knows is going to be there whom he would like to meet. “This guarantees you’ll get something from the event even before you go,” he says. Of course, this only really works if you know who's going to be there in advance. But when you're attending a panel or lecture, setting up a chance to talk with one of the speakers ahead of time can make an event even more beneficial.

If you’re unable to arrange time with the person beforehand, research them, so you have specific questions or comments prepared for when you do meet (such as mentioning a blog post he wrote or a recent interview she gave). This technique can be especially helpful for introverts, says Jennifer Kahnweiler, speaker, executive coach, and author of The Genius of Opposites: How Introverts and Extroverts Achieve Extraordinary Results Together. “You have to think of it as a performance. Not in a false way, but if you just show up, that’s a really big mistake,” she says. “You need to know why you’re going...and it helps to set a goal, such as ‘I’m going to talk to three people tonight.’”

Even if you haven’t zeroed in on a particular person you’d like to meet, having some talking points prepared about yourself can also bolster your confidence. It might seem obvious, but having an anecdote or two prepared that makes your personality shine through can make connecting with strangers a lot easier.
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It can be really intimidating to walk into an event alone and randomly strike up a conversation with a perfect stranger — even if the purpose of the evening is networking. How do you find a friend in the crowd?

Wall Street Journal writer Sue Shellenbarger tackled this very issue in her recent article, "The Smartest Way To Network At A Party." The key to making a connection is to take note of everyone's body language.

It's difficult to break into a close-knit crowd who are already deep into a conversation. Instead, look for people who are facing forward and scanning the room.

"Participants in groups that are welcoming often make eye contact as a newcomer approaches, raise their brows in a welcoming way, and smile," Shellenbarger writes. And avoid being the singleton who stands in the corner grimacing at their phone (although who hasn't relied on that trick during a more awkward event?).
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Starting with small talk at a networking event is completely acceptable — in fact, it’s usually pretty necessary. “We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to perform, but when someone comes up and starts pitching, it really can turn you off,” says Marcus. “You want to make sure that you’re having a conversation that is going to resonate with who you’re trying to build a relationship with.”

Asking something as simple as “So how was your weekend?” (if the event is on a Monday night), or “So how was your day today?” can be a natural springboard. One of Kahnweiler’s suggestions for “small talk” lead-in is, “What’s been keeping you busy lately?” Then, you can chime in that you once had a work project similar to that or are also training for a marathon (again, finding that common ground is key).
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Once you’ve established a rapport with someone, there’s no harm in asking a few personal questions. In fact, personal questions will likely solidify your connection, says White. A good starting point that’s semi-personal, yet still professionally acceptable to ask? “What do you do for fun when you’re not working?”

“This can bring some levity and humor into the conversation while also letting you see what lights them up, what brings them real joy,” says White. If someone says he works too much to have any fun, White suggests countering with: “If you had more time, what would you do then?”

Even workaholics will appreciate that question, because it allows them to revel in what they’re truly passionate about for a moment. Chances are, the conversation’s energy will be better off because of it.
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Once the conversation does gravitate toward “So, what do you do?” territory, don’t just spout off your job title, suggests Marcus. Instead, create an opportunity for another conversation to evolve from your answer. Talk about projects you’re currently working on to provide more context for what it is that you do.

“I think we often hide behind titles and this can be a conversation stopper,” says Marcus. “If you’re an associate director and I’m VP of sales, it might seem we no longer have much in common. Look to share something about your career that might spark the interest of someone.”
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Similar to focusing on projects instead of titles, have questions lined up to help people better understand and relate to what it is that you do. “When you’re trying to explain what you do, I like to give people an association,” says Kahnweiler.

For example, “Have you ever tried a barre class? My company makes some of the equipment that you’ve probably used,” as opposed to saying, “I’m a project manager for a fitness supply company.” This way, you open up a new topic of conversation — and one they might actually have a personal interest in — besides simply delivering that standard career “elevator pitch.” “The goal isn’t to do a one-way presentation, but to encourage engagement and interest,” says Kahnweiler.