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Practice Management > Building Your Business

How to Handle Awkward Networking Situations

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This is the most embarrassing situation I’ve ever experienced when networking.

I was traveling on business with Jackie, a top executive for a hotel chain. Jackie and I would be co-facilitating a one-day training session with the management team of a hotel property.

Now, Jackie and I have absolutely nothing in common. She’s a bit older than me and comes across like a college professor (not that there’s anything wrong with that). She’s conservative in her manner, eloquent and articulate in her delivery, and highly intelligent. (All the things I’m not.) Now, this is all fine, except her personality is a bit aloof, so it’s not easy to connect with her.

The next thing you know, we were breaking for lunch and found ourselves at a buffet. It was one of those deals where everyone stands with Styrofoam plates, paper cups, and plastic utensils. Lunch consisted of grilled chicken, steamed string beans, and something orange I couldn’t identify. So as Jackie spoke to me, I bit down into a string bean and (you guessed it) a jet stream of water fired at warp speed in her direction.

It’s important to note that the water didn’t hit her directly in the face. It did, however, take an interesting trajectory downward, and at the very last second actually grazed the lens of her eye glasses, leaving a line of water. It then dripped into her soda.

I tried to play it off as if nothing had happened. Well, as you might suspect, Jackie was on to me. She actually went cross eyed for a moment as she looked at the line of water on her lens. It was an uncomfortable moment.

My brilliant reply was, “So – what now?” That was all I could muster. Jackie actually smiled and asked if I would get her another soda, and she would wipe her lens, and we could call it even. The rest of the day ended up great, and we had a good relationship moving forward. Funny story, right?

So, how do you deal with those awkward moments that send you running away for the steamed vegetables?

How do I introduce myself?

Depends: Is the person you’re approaching in the middle of a conversation? If so, excuse yourself politely and introduce yourself. Offer to return once they finish their current conversation. But if you’re not interrupting, simply introduce yourself and ask some engaging questions – about them.

How do I introduce others and gracefully walk away?

Excuse yourself for interrupting and introduce whomever. During the course of your introduction, let them know why you’re doing this, and highlight how they might help one another. Then, offer them time to get to know one another as you excuse yourself politely.

What should I do if I forget someone’s name?

Don’t worry! Have comfort in knowing that they probably won’t remember your name, either. Just re-introduce yourself (for their benefit), and they will do the same. If they know your name and you don’t know their name, simply apologize and ask them to remind you of their name. I will frequently remind them that I’m old and I forget things. Sometimes, they laugh. Usually, you won’t offend anyone, as it’s difficult to keep track of all the people we come in contact with. Believe me – they can relate. If someone does get uppity about you forgetting their name, you probably don’t want to know them anyway.

How do I write on someone’s business card without offending them?

Just ask their permission. It’s the respectful thing to do, and people seem to appreciate that you’re even interested in writing something at all. It’s kind of flattering, actually. Japanese business professionals, and perhaps those from other cultures, may be offended if you write on their card, so if need be, take a note on an index card – which you might want to have in your pocket.

How do I excuse myself politely without offending?

Again, it depends. If you have something to do (bathroom, refreshments, chat with someone else) then simply excuse yourself and let them know. These things happen. If you’re speaking with someone who you don’t want to be speaking with anymore, simply offer to let them go so you don’t prevent them from speaking with others. Just be polite and respectful. If you could introduce them to someone of mutual benefit to them, great! If you can request an intro to someone at the venue, better still.

What do I do if I’ve done something embarrassing or stupid?

There’s stupid, and then there’s stupid. If you mispronounce someone’s name, it’s no big deal. You’ll be corrected anyway. On the other hand, if you accidentally offend someone, breach their confidence, or spit food in their face, I think we’re talking about a gracious apology and an offer to make it right. Keep in mind that when you do something unethical, breach a trust issue, or act intentionally rude or inconsiderate to someone, an apology may not cut it.

What if you just don’t click?

Face it: You won’t click with everyone. I don’t even connect with everyone (if you can imagine that). It’s just the way life is. Knowing this, you are less likely to feel awkward about not having a good connection. Besides, if you feel that there’s not a good connection, they probably feel the same way. The opposite is also true. The next person you meet might be your soul mate. You never know!

Can you think of awkward moments you’ve had or mistakes you made at a cocktail party or networking event? What would you change if you could? The reality is that there are very few sticky situations that can happen when networking and even socializing that you can’t get unstuck from. And most people (thankfully) have a sense of humor and can almost always relate on some level. Outside of offending someone and getting hit, what’s the worst that can happen? Just avoid the string beans.

Michael Goldberg is a speaker, author, consultant and the founder of Building Blocks Consulting. or


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