How real can you be when networking?
How do you show emotion in a professional situation?
Crying with you best mate — fine. Crying at a virtual networking event — is that ok?
Short answer — yes.
Longer answer involves a bit more context.
Let me share a short story of my recent real crying moment and then give you 3 learnings that reach beyond the specific moment in time.
The Tear Trigger
The event was virtual with 10 people. I knew many of them and the host was lovely. A friendly vibe.
So what made me cry?
We started with an original way to get to know each other as humans not business cards. I approve.
We shared a memory of a childhood gift — what was it and how did it make us feel.
Happy memories of getting a special present.
There were wonderful stories of dolls and musical instruments and Christmas and…
Then it was my turn.
I had found a photograph of the actual gift! Here it is.
I started to tell the story of my fairy outfit and tambourine.
I already knew there was a risk of my voice cracking and tears escaping.
I had an odd feeling in my stomach that had been building whilst listening to others.
I am aware of a thing called ‘interoception’ — described in a fascinating book by Doctor Lisa Feldman Barrett — ‘How Emotions are Made’. The feeling in our body. Mind and body are very much connected!
Something was happening that I had not planned at all.
I was feeling sad about my childhood. The little 5 year old loving her dressing up (I still do) — but lonely. My 5 year old hadn’t figured it all out of course — my distant parents, unhappy mother and 9 year old brother being miserable at boarding school.
‘Sorry’, I said. ‘I love all your stories but’… sniff…. ‘I loved this fairy outfit… but’… tears dropping…. ‘I guess I just don’t have a happy feeling about any of my childhood!
The group were totally supportive and I managed to find something a bit funny to say — which cheered me up! We moved on and all was well. Someone else rather kindly shared a less than perfect memory involving a jealous sibling!
So what did I learn?
To keep this concise — and relevant to all of us in business — I will encapsulate the learning under 3 headings.
1.Be alert to the possible ‘tear triggers’ of others.
You can’t avoid all possible ‘tear triggers’ when you communicate. It would be impossible and make for very stilted conversations!
You just need to be present and actively listening (to non verbals too) — so you can adapt and check in on those you are communicating with if you sense you have pushed a trigger. Tears are a good clue — but it is often more subtle.
- Change in body language
- Strained voice
- Going quiet
- Making excuse to leave
- Turning off video and going mute online.
If you are hosting the event, consider giving the person an opportunity to share, to release feelings (if they wish) in the moment or communicate with them in private afterwards — depending on the situation.
There will always be topics that are likely to trigger difficult emotions — childhood, marriage, death, family dynamics. It might be an idea to place something into the conversation such as:
‘I am lucky, I have good memories of… but I know that isn’t the case for everyone…’
Just be present and not carried away by your own experience to the exclusion of those around you.
2. You know you are in the right place when you can let the tears fall.
When you feel utter dread at the idea of a single tear escaping — and you clench everything to keep it all back… is it because you don’t feel that you are in a supportive space?
I accept that an interview or meeting with a potential client is not ideal for letting your raw emotions out. However — we are talking about a networking event.
How ‘real’ do you feel you can be?
If you want to become part of a networking community — really get to know people and learn from each other — you need to feel you can be real.
You will always be a ‘consciously tweaked’ version of you — that’s fine. Just don’t keep going to networking events where you feel you need to be a very restricted version of you.
I felt very supported in the space I was in — surrounded by non-judgmental real humans. But that hasn’t always been the case at other events.
3. Don’t let the emotion pull you into an unrelated self-doubt spiral.
The tears fell. What next?
Beware the lingering effect that leads to a ‘self-doubt spiral’.
It is ridiculously easy to fall into this sequence:
- Tear triggering event
- Lingering sense of sadness
- Attributing ‘wrong’ feeling (mind and body) to more than the tear trigger event.
- Believing that you are useless and unprofessional.
- Feeling that everyone else is grown-up and professional.
- Considering whether you are even able to be a business person at all!
Press pause, give yourself credit for discovering this trigger. Put the emotions out on the forensics table. Consider. Realise that your life experience and capacity to feel are an asset in your work and ability to be supportive to others.
I am not saying — let’s all burst out into tears all over the place. I am saying — we all have triggers and understanding our own and being open to those of others makes our internal and external communication all the better.