Overcoming discomfort in networking: an interview with Michael Alexis

If you want to be successful in pretty much any field, you need to be prepared to do things that are outside of your comfort zone. So much of success comes through who you know, so you need to be able to put yourself out there and approach people. You also need to be able to sell yourself well. I know that I find these things pretty uncomfortable, and think that a lot of others do too.

So I spoke with Michael Alexis - a lawyer and entrepreneur from Guelph, Canada, who writes guides on how to build successful businesses and similar topics - about how to overcome some of these difficulties.

Below the video I’ve written up what I think are some of the most useful takeaways from what Michael said - so if you don’t have time to watch the full video, scroll down and read them!


Key takeaways from our conversation

The thing that will ultimately make you comfortable approaching people and selling yourself is believing that you have something valuable to offer: where “value” means that the other person is going to get the same or more out of any interaction than you do.

There are two key things that you need to overcome discomfort when approaching new people:

  • First, you need to be prepared to push through some discomfort initially - and over time it will get more and more comfortable.

  • Second, prepare as much as you can in advance. If you feel uncomfortable but are well-prepared then you can sometimes just go on autopilot.

In situations like networking, it helps to try and identify what tangible barriers may be holding you back - things you can do something about - rather than simply focusing on the abstract idea of “being uncomfortable.” So, for example, if you’re uncomfortable approaching new people, it may be that at least part of this is feeling you don’t know what to say. If this is the case, then you can reduce at least some of the discomfort by simply preparing well in advance what you’re going to say to them.

If you’re trying lots of new things (especially those that involve approaching new people) it is inevitable that you will sometimes “fail”, in the sense that people won’t respond in the way you want them to. Don’t let failure put you off - even failures can lead to new opportunities further down the line.

When you're trying to get more comfortable doing something, try to think about success in terms of what you do, rather than in terms of other people’s reactions. Especially if you’re trying to expand your comfort zone, success is about doing the uncomfortable thing - approaching the person, say - not what follows after - how they react. Focus on the outcome that is in your control - pushing your comfort zone - not those that aren't - how other people react to it.

If you find yourself having negative thoughts like “I can’t do this”, “I’m going to fail” etc. that are holding you back, then write them down. Just writing things down is in itself really useful - it forces you to be more reasonable and view your thoughts more objectively. Once you’ve written them down, challenge them one-by-one - perhaps imagining that someone else were saying them - and try to replace them with more positive, realistic thoughts.

If you want to sell something but haven’t established that you have anything valuable yet, do informational interviews. Invite would-be-clients out for coffee and ask them about what product or service they need and how much they would pay for it. This is great because (a) you learn more about the market for whatever product or service you are trying to provide, and (b) you establish relationships with people who are then much more likely to become clients once you have something to offer.

I asked Michael what one concrete thing he would recommend someone do if they want to get better at networking/selling themselves/doing similarly uncomfortable things, and he said this: take someone out for coffee. It doesn’t even matter who it is. Make a connection.

Remember: networking is one of those things that everyone agrees they should do, but almost no-one does. So if you reach out to someone, you’re probably doing them a favour - you’re helping them to fill their networking quota without having to do anything uncomfortable themselves!