For the first decade of my professional life, my networking philosophy was essentially, “good for them; not for me.” My networking experiences fell somewhere along the spectrum from mildly awkward to “counting down the seconds until I can escape this social interaction.”
At the time, I didn’t know I was neurodivergent. I just knew that the thought of making small talk in a room full of strangers – or even in a one-on-one informational interview – threw me into a low-key panic. These situations felt so overwhelming that most of the time I simply opted out, despite intellectually understanding their value.
Only when I started my Career Development Professional certificate did I finally make a concerted effort to figure this networking thing out. Through trial and error, and plenty of awkwardness and discomfort, I eventually got to the point of genuinely enjoying networking conversations under the right conditions.
I could do it, but I was exhausted.
The final piece clicked into place when I realized that I’m neurodivergent. Without delving too deeply into the specifics, I came to understand that my brain literally processes information differently than “neurotypical” brains.
This knowledge enabled me to recognize the many aspects of traditional networking that are especially challenging for my neurodivergent brain to navigate. Viewing my experience through this lens, I was able to pinpoint the specific reasons I found networking so challenging and devise self-accommodation strategies to make it more accessible.
That’s where forks come in. Fork theory was first introduced in 2018 by neurodivergent blogger Jenrose to describe life’s challenges and barriers, and how they can accumulate to the point of overwhelm.
Think of each challenge or stressor as a fork poking at your body. You might be able to tolerate several smaller forks – a scratchy clothing tag or the flicker of a fluorescent light, for example. Keep adding more forks, though, and eventually you’ll reach your limit.
From a distance, networking looked to me like a solid sheet of metal. Big, scary and impossible to ignore. Once I took a closer look, however, I saw that it was actually made up of many smaller forks. Still big, but with a key difference: I could deal with the forks one at a time.
My forks – the challenges and stressors that affect my ability to engage in networking – fall into three major themes. While they are common experiences for many neurodivergent people, every individual will have their own unique set of needs.
Use this list as a way to expand your understanding of what supports might be helpful. Career development practitioners can work with clients – neurodivergent or not – to identify, anticipate and develop their own fork removal strategies.
- Need for complete and accurate information: In order to feel confident entering a new situation, I need details, and time to process and prepare.
- Social stressors: Interacting with others – however enjoyable – requires a tremendous amount of effort that leaves me mentally and physically exhausted.
- Sensory sensitivities: It is hard for my brain to filter out the sights, sounds and scents around me. This can lead to a sensory overload, making it difficult to engage in a meaningful way.
Below are some of the strategies that I have found helpful:
I function best when I understand the specific parametres and expectations of a social interaction. Ensure you are providing clients with explicit descriptions and addressing potentially “unwritten rules” of networking. For example, neurodivergent clients might appreciate detailed explanations for how to request an informational interview, and suggestions for structure, content and length.
Clarity of purpose is also extremely important. It is difficult to feel confident going into a new situation if I don’t fully understand the “why.” A specific goal (e.g. learning more about a certain topic) is a lot more useful than the abstract concept of “making professional connections.”
Front-load the work
My natural tendency toward advance preparation serves me well. A sure way to increase my confidence when entering a networking situation is to go in armed with well-researched and thoughtful questions, tailored to the situation. Knowing that I can fall back on my notes if we reach a lull in the conversation reduces the mental load in the moment.
If a client will be networking in-person, understand that adds an additional layer of uncertainty and information to process. There’s no shame in doing some advance recon. For example, I use Google Street View to make a parking plan and familiarize myself with the outside of the building. I also like to check out online menus so I can save my mental energy for having meaningful conversations rather than processing my new surroundings.
“Think of each challenge or stressor as a fork poking at your body. You might be able to tolerate several smaller forks – a scratchy clothing tag or the flicker of a fluorescent light, for example. Keep adding more forks, though, and eventually you’ll reach your limit.”
Control your environment
When possible, encourage clients to choose a familiar setting, such as the public library they frequent or a favourite coffee shop. Alternatively, suggest a virtual conversation by video or phone call. Reducing the unknowns frees up mental space to focus on the conversation itself.
Remind clients to start slow. They might find it helpful to practice with a known and trusted person to get a feel for the mechanics of this new type of conversation. It will probably still feel awkward, but bearably so.
Remember that networking can take many forms. While a large career fair or networking event might be great for some, it doesn’t have to be for everyone. Many neurodivergent folks – myself included – are much more able to be their authentic selves in one-on-one conversations or online settings such as LinkedIn.
Especially in larger-scale networking events, neurodivergent clients may need a reminder that it’s okay to take breaks and leave early if needed.
Create a buffer of time before and after. Clients might need to give themselves a chance to get settled, maybe take some deep breaths or listen to calming music to smooth the transition. Recovery time is just as important. On socially intense days, I know that it’s okay to have a frozen pizza kind of night.
When possible, choose a time of day that suits your natural energy ebbs and flows. For example, my energy tends to be high in the morning, and then I hit a wall after lunch before getting a second wind in late afternoon. If you can aim for your sweet spot, that’s one less thing to worry about.
Check in with your body
When I’m feeling nervous or stressed, I have a harder time noticing what my body needs. I might be dimly aware that something is bothering me, but there’s a lag before my brain identifies it as thirst. Some people find a simple checklist for these basic body needs can be helpful: Have you eaten recently? Do you need a washroom break? Are you too hot or too cold? And so on.
While we may have been taught that “fidgeting” is somehow unprofessional, there is a growing awareness that it is a necessary form of self-regulation for many neurodivergent people. Having a small object to manipulate in my hands helps me stay grounded in the moment and lets out some of my nervous energy. There are many great products on the market made exactly for this purpose, but it can also be as simple as a small, polished stone or even a paper clip.
Finally, it is important to recognize that sensory processing differences can make traditional “professional” attire uncomfortable, distracting or even painful for neurodivergent folks. Support clients by encouraging them to choose fabrics and styles that make them feel polished and comfortable (look up “workleisure” if you’re not sure what this might look like).
If this level of energy management seems exhausting, that’s because it is! It’s also the reality for many neurodivergent individuals. It may seem like overkill to someone with a neurotypical brain. For me, it is necessary self-accommodation.
I may not be able to remove all my forks at the same time, but by controlling what I can, I’m able to create conditions to engage in – and even enjoy – networking. Just don’t ask me to do it every day!
hNeurodivergent Spoons & Forks: How to Explain Autism and Fatigue