I think of myself as an introvert whose work compelled me to become more extroverted. I used to feel tongue-tied around people I didn’t know. Engaging with new people was daunting and took a lot of energy, but — as a clinical social worker — I had to go into people’s hospital rooms or homes in often difficult circumstances to offer support or conduct an assessment. I needed to connect with (and, hopefully, earn the trust of) countless numbers of people multiple times a day.
I had a job to do. I didn’t have time to dread every encounter. Over time — and with lots of practice — talking with total strangers became easier.
Every year as IHI prepares for its National Forum, I think about how I might share what I’ve learned to help other people like me. Yes, many people who attend the Forum look forward to reconnecting with colleagues, learning practical lessons they can bring home, and getting reinvigorated for the year ahead. But I know many participants also shudder at the idea of — ugh — “networking.” For many people, it’s exhausting to even contemplate striking up a conversation with someone they don’t know.
Although it’s not always easy, what I’ve come to learn is that connecting with new people is one of the best ways to take full advantage of the (often rare) opportunity to get away from your day-to-day work. The many networking opportunities at the Forum consist of more than just small talk and collecting as many LinkedIn contacts as you can. By making the effort to engage in a meaningful way with people with shared interests, you will often find there are genuine, mutually beneficial reasons to stay in touch.
For those who would rather be trapped in an all-day electronic health records training than waste time engaging in idle chatter, consider this list of tips to make networking more worthwhile:
Let empathy guide you — Instead of focusing on how much you hate socializing with new people, consider the fact that many people feel the same as you and are working up the nerve to talk with someone. Don’t worry that you’ll be bothering a fellow attendee by striking up a conversation; you may be doing them a favor. You might even find you have information or experience that could help them.
Be prepared — If you’re sometimes at a loss for words in social situations, have a couple of good open-ended questions ready as conversation starters. “How many Forums have you attended?” is one I’ve used many times. “What were you hoping to learn while you’re at the Forum?” can be a natural follow-up question to continue the conversation. Put some thought into your responses to the same questions.
Share your contact info — If you feel comfortable, exchange your name and work email. Bring your business cards to exchange if you have them.
Use your energy wisely — If you need to be extra careful with how you spend your emotional energy, find easier ways to have substantive conversations. Storyboards, for example, offer ready-made topics for discussion. During the storyboard reception, many representatives will be present to answer questions. Have these three queries in your “back pocket” and you’re sure to gather some useful ideas:
What were the keys to your success?
What would you do differently if you had to do this project over again?
What surprised you the most as you did this work?
Also, if it’s helpful for you to limit direct eye contact, looking at a storyboard with the person you’re speaking with is a natural way to do this.
Plan — Review the conference schedule (in the airport or on the plane, for example) and develop a strategic approach to networking that plays to your strengths. If you’re a “morning person,” for example, you may want to attend a breakfast event on a topic that interests you. If you need time to mentally prepare before talking with new people, you may want to take a short break before the evening receptions.
Be creative — Besides planned networking events, you’ll have many spontaneous opportunities to connect with others, which may take some pressure off the situation. Why not chat with the person ahead of you while waiting for the free shuttle buses, for example? Or, if you’re wise and arrive early to get a good seat, you’ll have a few minutes before the keynotes start. Consider saying hello to a fellow early bird.
Practice self-care — Attending a conference can be tiring for the most extroverted among us. Be kind to yourself. If you can, avoid interactions that feel more draining than energizing. Take a walk outside between sessions. Sit by the pool at lunch.
With burnout running rampant in health care, it can be valuable to reconnect with why we got into health care in the first place. Finding fellow improvement-minded people can help us do that. Whether or not you meet new people at the IHI National Forum, I hope you find it heartening to be among thousands of others who care passionately about improving health and health care.
Jo Ann Endo is IHI’s Senior Managing Editor, Digital Content & Blog.
Editor’s note: Consider attending the following networking events at this year’s IHI National Forum (December 8–11, 2019):
Forum Welcome Reception (Monday, December 9, from 4:30–6:30 PM in the Forum Hall)
Equity Reception (Monday, December 9, from 6:30–8:00 PM. Location TBD.)
Storyboard Reception (Tuesday, December 10, from 4:30–6:30 PM in the Forum Hall)
Special Interest Breakfasts on a variety of topics (Wednesday, December 11, from 7:00–7:45 AM)