For Sarah Weld, realising that her position as an editor of a northern California monthly magazine would be ending due to layoffs was bad enough, but the idea that she would have to get out there and start networking was almost worse.

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Career Coach is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the career turning points and questions many professionals face. We welcome questions from readers at careercoach@bbc.com.

“You feel like you’re barging in on someone’s busy schedule and asking for a job,” she said.

Weld isn’t alone in her aversion to networking.

“Most people would rather have their teeth extracted without anaesthetic than to network,” said Karalyn Brown, founder of Australia-based job site InterviewIQ in an email. One reason: people associate networking with being needy or too much like selling themselves. Others are socially awkward and feel uncomfortable reaching out or they simply don’t know exactly how to network, Brown said.

Studies show that networking is one of the most important skills needed to land a job in today’s competitive market. Those connections might make referrals when jobs open up and some 71% of US human-resource professionals said that referral candidates get high priority when deciding whom to hire, according to a 2014 study from Boston-based research and consulting firm Millennial Branding.

“Networking is so important because people do the hiring and if you know the right people, your chances of landing an interview are much greater than if you're one of a hundred resumes,” said Dan Schawbel, the firm’s managing partner and author of Promote Yourself and Me 2.0.

So, how do you get started?

Take the first step

Start by being social and getting active in the community, suggested Brown. One easy way to do this is by volunteering, especially if you’re considering a new field. “It’s a powerful way to demonstrate who you are and what your values are, without having to say anything,” she said. “Often you’ll find connected and engaged people also volunteer and will offer to help you find work or business if, after you get to know them, you mention you are on the lookout for new opportunities.”

No plans to leave your current industry? Then, you’ll want to take advantage of who you already know in the field: past employers and former colleagues, for example, These people can be a great source for finding out what companies are hiring and for putting you in touch with people who might know of an opening. And if you’re early in your career, it couldn’t hurt to get in touch with alumni from your university who are working in your field. “While many people try and meet new people, the smart networkers know that they should use their current network to get introductions first,” said Schawbel.

Another way to ease into networking is to pick professional events that truly interest you, said Brown. That way, “you can start a conversation around the event topic, rather than introducing yourself and stating what you do.” It’s OK to bring a friend along with you. Just don’t hide behind them, said Brown. “With a friend, it’s easier to go and talk to someone else who’s standing awkward and alone… you can feed off each other.”

Learned behaviour

Many people make the mistake of thinking that there are “natural networkers,” or those people to whom it comes easily, said Ashley Ringger, managing director of Switzerland-based Set Sails Social Media, in an email. “However, good networking is more a skill to be learned than to be born with,” she said. “Once you get started, it becomes easier as you develop your own approach and grow your circle. Not only will you increase your contact base, but soon you will become a resource to connect others.”

Give yourself a goal, suggested Ringger. For example, at every professional event you attend, don’t allow yourself to leave until you’ve met at least three people and have exchanged business cards with them. And don’t stop there.

“Plenty of networking takes place online through social media,” said Ringger. After you get home, find the new contacts you have made on social media platforms like LinkedIn and Xing and connect with them there. “When possible, include a personal message about where and when you met, thank them for the information they shared, and express your interest in remaining connected with them. If they have their own business, ‘like’ or follow it on appropriate social media platforms. “Showing your support of their endeavours gives them a reason to support yours,” she said.

Common interests, not cocktails

“Big events and cocktail parties are often what jump to mind for many people when they think about networking, particularly those that don't like it,” said David Van Rooy, senior director of Global Leadership Development at Walmart and author of Trajectory: 7 Career Strategies to Take You from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, in an email. “Networking, though, is about much more than large social events. Networking is about building relationships, and individual networking is equally important.”

Think of it more as a conversation with another person; that can help remove some of the stress and anxiety associated with networking and making new connections, said Van Rooy. He suggested setting up informal meetings with others on a “get to know you” basis. Meeting over coffee is an easy way to get started. And look for overlap.

“There are countless connections you can find, such as a common interest in sports, maybe you both have kids, or the other person recently went on an exciting vacation that you can talk about,” said Van Rooy. “As a bonus, the relationships you build through individual networking will often open up many doors and introduce you to others.”

Start with who you know

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you need to only network with strangers — which is not a pleasant task for many people. For Weld, it was much easier — and more productive — to look closer to home.

“Start off with people you already know, people who are your friends and like you,” she said. “Ask them to go to coffee with you.”

She forced herself to do this weekly. And every time she left a meeting, she would make sure to have two new names to contact.

Even with her countless hours of networking, Weld ended up finding her current position as a marketing communications specialist through a traditional job listing. But she still found the networking incredibly valuable.

 “By the time I got the interview, I was pretty good at spinning myself,” she said, having had lots of practice. “Networking is not a process that I enjoyed. Before each meeting I’d have to take a deep breath. It’s always a little stressful, but it’s essential.”

Career Coach is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the career turning points and questions many professionals face. We welcome questions from readers at careercoach@bbc.com.

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