You are not alone. In any gathering of size there will be three groups of people: the enthusiasts, the passengers and the prisoners. The proportions vary according to the event, of course, but since about half the population is introverted and would rather spend time in a much smaller gathering, you are in good company, even if you haven't yet spotted who your fellow-travellers are.
If you actively dislike any large event (weddings, concerts etc.) then you will always be in the prisoner category when you attend them. But perhaps what makes these work-related gatherings daunting for you is not the numbers of people but the fact that you won't know most of them and may not find anyone to talk to.
Mike Moran, the larger-than-life commercial director of Toyota GB, is a man who normally relishes a crowd, but he recognises there are some people for whom business socialising is an anathema. His suggestion is to ask yourself if you really have to attend. 'Is it a must-have in your job, or just a nice-to-have? If it's the latter, don't go. Spare yourself the pain.'
If not going is not an option, you then have to ask yourself if you want to remain in the prisoner category or if you can be bothered to make an effort to reach a more positive position. If you're prepared to change your approach, there are several ways to turn this kind of an event into a useful, even enjoyable experience.
Moran's advice is to team up with someone you know who is attending the same event, preferably meeting up beforehand so you can go in together. Often, it's the first few minutes that are the worst, when we imagine the whole room has noticed we're loitering by ourselves.
Giving yourself a purpose can also be helpful. For instance, identifying who is going to be there that you need to, or would like to, meet. Who'll be in the room and who could introduce you to the people you want to meet? This approach has several advantages: it recognises that you don't have to talk to everyone, just a few people. It allows you to prepare yourself; it gives you something to do: checking the guest list, scanning the room as you walk towards the bar or the buffet - making it clear that you're there for a reason. It also draws your attention away from yourself, often the major obstacle to overcome. At the end of the function, you can check back on how things went, discovering perhaps that you achieved most of your aims, thereby reassuring yourself that the reality wasn't nearly as bad as your anticipations.
If your purpose is more general - for example, to become better known in the industry or simply to increase your contacts, you could try the technique my fellow coach Kate Springford uses. She casts herself in the role of a detective, setting herself the task of finding out what's interesting about the people she meets. And, unless you believe you are the only interesting person in the universe, the chances are that you'll discover some connection or common interest, if you really listen to what others say.
'What are you finding exciting about life at the moment?' was the challenging question asked of me recently at a communications industry function, by someone whose name was familiar. It gave me pause for thought but allowed me to talk with some passion about some aspect of my work. When I found my response was properly listened to, I felt good about myself and about my interlocutor and this led to a pleasant and useful exchange.
As with most areas of interpersonal development, observing how others who do things well operate is usually a helpful way of improving one's own performance. Next time there's potential for networking, spot the people who are more inclusive and attach yourself to them. Maybe you will never be the gregarious extrovert who can happily start a conversation and crack a joke with anyone, but more than likely you can pick up some tips from those who are naturally engaging and adapt them to your own personal style.
It may not be possible to catapult yourself from prisoner to enthusiast in one bound but, with a slight shift in mindset, you'll probably be able to move to a position where networking becomes a normal part of your job, and well within your capabilities.
Miranda Kennett is managing coach at The Coaching House (www.coachinghouse.com) and a founding partner of The Management Due Diligence Co. If you have an issue you'd like this column to cover, e-mail: email@example.com.