'Tis the season of holiday party schmoozing--a golden opportunity for professional networking. If you're outgoing, the season is a blast. If you're shy, it can produce some serious anxiety.

Shy people often ask me for advice in December: "How can I overcome my shyness to become a better networker?"

There are definitely some good strategies for overcoming shyness--join a public speaking training organization such as Toastmasters, practice your self-introduction until you feel comfortable, or take a stand-up comedy class (after standing alone on a stage telling jokes, nothing is scary)--but these strategies take time. What can shy people do right now to network comfortably?

My advice is to embrace shyness and use it to your advantage. (And if you're outgoing, consider taking some tips from your more demure friends.) Shy people often make the very best professional networkers. Here's why:

They ask for personal referrals. There's a myth that networking is all about cold calling people and walking up to strangers at cocktail parties. Often the best connections are made through mutual acquaintances. Shy people tend to feel most comfortable networking with the people they know, and then ask those people for referrals to others. That's a good strategy for anyone. This is one of the reasons LinkedIn is so powerful--people are able to make new connections through their existing professional and personal contacts.

They are polite. Etiquette has become a bit of a lost art these days, and that's a bad thing. A shy friend of mine recently attended an event with Martha Stewart. She waited patiently as people hoarded around the Domestic One, wielding business cards and loud voices. Eventually my friend made eye contact and said, "Excuse me, Ms. Stewart. May I introduce myself?" "Absolutely, I would love to meet you," was the reply. "Thank you for being so polite."

They listen more than they talk. "There's a reason you have two ears and one mouth," my grandfather used to say. Shy people tend to ask questions and listen intently to the answers, only talking when they have something meaningful to add. You certainly don't want to be silent, but good listeners often win the new job or the new client.

They bring a wingman (or woman). Some networking experts frown on the idea of bringing a friend to an event since some people use this as an opportunity to stand together in the corner and avoid all other human contact. I believe the exact opposite. If you feel more comfortable and confident attending an event with a friend, then go for it. In fact, I dare you to bring your most outgoing pal, who will push you to talk to more people and will tell them how great you are.

They network online. While some shy people hide behind their email accounts, online networking is an important strategy. But instead of networking only online, I would encourage more introverted networkers to use online networks to introduce themselves before an in-person or on-the-phone interaction.

Studies show that 40 to 50 percent of people describe themselves as shy, so whenever you're feeling hesitant, look around and realize that half the room is feeling the same way you are. And take advantage of your natural networking strengths.


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