Networking for Meaningful Business Relationships: Three Questions to Avoid

It happens all the time at networking events: someone asks a question that is awkward to answer.

At one such event, I was standing in a semicircle getting acquainted with three other attendees. After I introduced myself, a person in the semicircle asked me,

“What are the two biggest issues you face in your business?”

Three sets of eyes fixed their gaze on me, waiting for my answer.

Every networking situation has a context, and if you’ve ever engaged in small talk with business people you are meeting for the first time, the questions you ask and answer depend on the context. For example, the kind of exchange you might have with someone you’ll probably never see again while waiting for your flight at an airport terminal is very different from the exchange you might have at a business networking event.

How do you establish a meaningful connection in a business context, often in five minutes or less? First, be aware of three types of questions to avoid.

Personal or Private Questions// “What are the two biggest issues you face in your business?” is a relevant question for a salesperson to ask a prospect, but only after establishing a connection and developing a relationship of trust. The question is out of context in a first, informal meeting with someone you’ve never met before. People like to connect with people who bring out the best in themselves and in others. “How did you get started in the industry?” is a context-appropriate option that fosters a connection.

Yes/No Questions// Networking questions build rapport by building momentum into a conversation. Asking yes/no questions is like trying to play tennis in a padded room – it absorbs all the forward movement your exchange. If you’re asking questions that begin with do/does or is/are, reframe them as what, where or how questions.

Why Questions// In a first meeting, your goal is to find common ground. Why questions can seem judgmental, or imply that there’s a right or wrong answer. Don’t risk putting a new contact on the defensive. Like yes/no questions, why questions can often be reframed as what, where or how questions. For example, “Did you like the speaker? Why?” could be reframed as, “What are your thoughts about the program?”

In addition to being intentional with your questions, be intentional with your answers. When you’re faced with an out-of-context question, answer it with a context-appropriate question. My answer to the question about the two biggest issues I face in my business:

“That’s an interesting question. What I love about my business is helping clients find new revenue streams. I’m curious – what do you enjoy most about your work?”

You have only a few minutes to establish a connection. Make that time meaningful by matching your networking questions to the context.

Posted on March 3rd, 2015