One thing I know for sure about myself is this: I’m not great at small talk. I wasn’t born with the gift of gab. While I thrive on other people’s energy, I hate to come up with frivolous conversation starters. I’d much rather jump right into a meaningful dialogue than participate in idle chatter. This makes opportunities like networking events a bit intimidating. And I’m certain I’m not the only one with this aversion to small-talk.
Marcel Schwantes, principal and founder of Leadership From the Core, discovered that to be able to draw people in, he simply had to ask the right questions. Here, we’ll share some of Schwantes’ questions that drive interest and persuasion in a professional conversation. He points out that the first four questions are borrowed from business author David Burkus, which were shared in the Harvard Business Review.
1. What excites you right now? As Burkus explains, this question can go in many directions with a wide range of possible answers that may overlap into your personal life or work life, which will open the conversation further. And asking it allows for the other person to share something that he or she is passionate about.
2. What are you looking forward to? Like the last question, this one is more forward-looking, which, says Burkus, allows for the other person “to choose from a bigger set of possible answers.”
3. What’s the best thing that’s happened to you this year? It’s the same technique as the previous two, but this one goes back in time for the other person to reflect on something pivotal that may have changed the course of his or her life. It also opens up a wealth of answers to choose from, which may overlap into some of your own areas of interest for further discussion.
4. What’s the most important thing I should know about you? Because it can come across as a little direct, this is certainly not your first question, and it may not even be your third or fourth, but it “gives the broadest possible range from which they can choose,” says Burkus. Use it in context, listen for clues and wait for the right timing.
5. What’s your story? This is open-ended enough to trigger an intriguing story—a journey to a foreign country, meeting a famous person, getting funded for a startup, a special talent used for making the world a better place, etc. It’s a question that immediately draws in the other person and lets him or her speak from the heart.
6. What is one of your defining moments? This question invites the speaker to share on a deeper level, which builds momentum and rapport more quickly. Obviously, asking a few casual questions before it helps set the mood for hearing about a profound moment or transition in that person’s life.
7. Why did you choose your profession? This assumes that, at some point, you dropped the mandatory “What do you do?” question. As a follow-up, it’s a question that will reveal multiple layers of someone’s journey. It speaks to people’s values, what motivates them and whether their work is their calling. It may also trigger a different, more thought-provoking response: some people aren’t happy in their jobs. By asking, you may be in the position to assist or mentor a person through a career or job transition.
8. What are you currently reading? You may have the same authors and subjects in common, which will deepen your conversation. Also, use this question to ask for book recommendations. You may find the conversation going down the path of exploring mutual book ideas to solve a workplace issue or implement a new business strategy.
9. How can I be most helpful to you right now? To really add the most value to a conversation, once a level of comfort has been established, ask the other person how you can be most helpful to him or her, whether personally or professionally. You’ll be amazed how pleasantly surprised people will be by that thoughtful gesture, and how responsive they are in their answer. Your genuine willingness, no strings attached, to make yourself useful to others leads to more interesting, engaging and real conversations that may lead to future opportunities.
Whatever question you decide to use, the important thing is to always ask open-ended questions and to avoid work-related questions or business questions until much, much later in the conversation. You’ll be surprised by how seamless the transition will be to business, conducting a sales pitch or exploring partnerships once both parties know each other.
Source: Marcel Schwantes is an expert in developing exceptional servant leadership work cultures where employees, managers, executives and their businesses thrive. He is an entrepreneur, executive coach and adviser, and keynote speaker.
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