As a follow-up to our previous post on networking, today’s blog is about the right and wrong questions that you can ask during a networking conversation. The kinds of questions you ask can make or break how effective you are at building connections and increasing your influence. Your “winner’s circle” doesn’t create itself, and being intentional about increasing its reach will be important to getting ahead.
Let me use an example to illustrate the kinds of questions you can ask, and which ones are effective. Currently Kara and I are tackling the very interesting challenge of writing a book. We know we’re probably a good way off from actually publishing it, but it’s in our sights and something that we’re thinking about. (Sign up for special updates on our book development here). The part of our process that we’re undertaking right now is absorbing as much as we can from other folks who have written books. When talking to these authors, I can ask them questions that fit into one of the following three buckets:
WHY they wrote the book
Questions that get at the WHY someone does something typically reveal very interesting insight into the author’s personal value system, main drivers, and larger mission. They’re helpful in getting to know a person, and we use them a LOT in the coaching world. From an influence perspective, these questions reveal the “heart” of the person and allow me insight into what matters to them, and how I might appeal to them in the future. The key thing to know here, though, is that WHY questions don’t always start with “why.” I might ask, What were you hoping to accomplish? or What about writing a book was appealing to you? These questions are aimed at understanding the underlying motivations and drivers of the person even though the word “why” never shows up.
WHAT they wrote about
These questions get into the direct expertise of the author. Unless their expertise is actually in an area that I need/want to know more about, this is typically less interesting. It’s also where I might end up with a conversation that’s actually a bit annoying to the author. Asking for free knowledge like that can be frustrating to the person on the other side. Many people will engage with you if you ask these questions, but it’ll turn the conversation into a bit of a sales pitch for them, and less of a “I like you, you like me, let’s be in each other’s networks” conversation.
HOW they wrote the book
These questions are the true gems for building a solid network of people around you. They help you learn more about the process you’re undertaking without assuming that your process will be a universally shared one. These questions also open the door for advice that is actually relevant to you, irrespective of the field the other person is in, because they allow the person to speak from his/her own experience. Instead of What audience should I write for? (which requires the person to know something about my business, and typically results in a less-than-a-sentence answer) the question becomes, How did you go about determining who your audience was? (which allows them to speak to their own experience, gives me insights into how I might figure it out for myself, and gets them telling a story.) From an influence perspective, these questions are golden because they inspire the other person to really start talking. When a person shares personal stories they re-experience the emotions of that story. That experience helps engrain the current interaction they’re having with you, so they’ll remember you more effectively. On top of that, research shows that people remember conversations fondly if they were the ones doing most of the talking… so keep them talking! Now they like and remember you. They’re invested. Now they want to help.
All three of these types of questions are important in their own right, and different situations call for different kinds of questions. The next time you’re at a networking event, though, experiment with questions that get at the WHY and HOW of something, and spend less energy on the WHAT. See how that makes a difference in the quality of the conversations you have and the connections that you build.