What’s the most deadening environment you can think of that can transform a generally happy, outgoing and energetic disposition into a depleted, antisocial being? 

In two simple words — [cue the loud foghorn sound effect] a conference.  

With the New Year upon us, do you notice all the new work and volunteer leadership conferences starting to populate your calendar? I am trying to think through how I might cultivate a metaphoric shofar blast through them all, to help transform that foghorn not only to stay awake, but to get the most out of the experience.

This past year, I was in one such dreaded symposium.  I looked forward to it like a foreboding root canal.  I shared my anxiety with a colleague, sheepishly admitting that these situations, to be completely honest, make me depressed.   In confiding my secret anguish, she seemed almost relieved, admitting that she “gets it” because she feels the same way when it comes to attending a conference or large gathering and doesn’t know why. I have found that whenever I reveal a hidden feeling that causes me anxiety I am rarely alone.

Knowing that there must be more people out there who experience the same melancholy symptoms, I became inspired to broaden the circle of conversation, sharing my feelings with more individuals before and after the conference.  To my great surprise, I had formed a de facto support group of conference attendees singing the blues — all suffering from the same affliction.

Being a professional life coach, I started to review the situation from a variety of perspectives. I instantly heard my inner critic telling me that I am the problem and that because I’m not really that friendly nor outgoing, I probably deserve to be alone.  But I combated that reaction pretty quickly, having dealt with that inner voice before and knowing how to squash it.   

I came up with a five-step process for overcoming the conference blues, and share them as a New Year offering:

Step 1.  Plan and prioritize
Read the conference program in advance.  Prioritize.  Decide what is “important” to attend and what might be “interesting” and scratch out the “unnecessary” items. Find out who is going to be there in advance.  Think about what you want to get out of the conference — what would be essential to make it worthwhile?  Set goals or targets for yourself, either by day or by the conference end.  Write out your plan of action.

Step 2.  Connecting vs networking
Contact the people you want to meet in advance if possible, or make a list you can refer to in order to find them when you are there.  Think about the connections that are important for you, remembering that networking is not just a collection of business cards but a connection made with people.  Be open about sharing your interests, knowledge and ideas freely, which will organically connect you with the people you want to get to know better.  This will also leave you feeling a sense of accomplishment when the conference is over. Take pictures of those you enjoyed meeting so you’ll document who you met, and share those photos with them when you return home, not only reminding them who you are but keeping a line of communication open.

Step 3. Energy meter
Don’t’ expend unnecessary energy flitting from one person to another. Avoid engaging in meaningless chit chat — it’s exhausting.  Whether its two or six people, in striving for meaningful connections and engagement, the conference experience can actually be, I admit… fun.

Step 4. Time out and self-care
Start recognizing when your energy meter is getting close to empty.  That is when you need to politely excuse yourself, go find a quiet place to be alone, go back to your room or take a walk outside to get some fresh air.  These quiet meditative moments safeguard you against the advances of disconnection and depression.  Self-care is all about knowing what you need at the right time.  Don’t lose sight of that when you are surrounded by people who want a part of you — pay attention to what you are feeling and act accordingly.  Don’t be afraid to take a timeout; chances are you won’t be missing anything.

Step 5.  Follow-up on yourself and with others
As the conference comes to a conclusion, check in with yourself to make sure you got what you needed from the experience.  If not, take action to make it happen.  When you return home, take the next day to follow up with your new conference pals and explore ways to stay connected for mutual benefit. Whether it’s friendship or a multimillion-dollar deal — it’ll be worth it.

Rosalind Franklin, an alum of the Heritage Program (SF 00), was raised in England and lived in Israel and New York before moving to the Bay Area. She is Principal of Rosalind Franklin Group, providing executive coaching for nonprofit and individual clients, and she consults with organizations and individuals on issues of board governance and leadership development. She is also a coach for parents of children in crisis and in residential treatment programs. Rosalind is the past president of the SF  JCRC and  a trustee of Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago, named after her aunt, whose groundbreaking scientific work contributed to the discovery of DNA. A musician, Rosalind co-founded the California Symphony. Rosalind can be reached at Rosalind@RosalindFranklinGroup.com.