Build Your Network with Questions

Posted 06.03.2009

Earlier this week I was coaching a group of high potential leaders moving up to the executive level. Our topic was “organizational presence” which was on point since many of these folks are working on expanding their networks beyond their immediate areas of responsibility. 

When I lead a group coaching session, I like to have everyone share examples of what they’re doing to improve their leadership skills in “real life”.  It was striking to hear the results that several leaders were getting by being intentional about asking more questions in meetings. There were two big tips in the stories. Here they are along with a “bonus tip” I shared with the group.

The first is that these leaders are shifting from asking questions that start with why or how and are asking more questions that start with the word “What.”  As I’ve written here before, “What” questions open up possibilities and give the other person room to think and be creative.  Think about your own experience on the receiving end of questions.  Would you respond better to “Why do you think that?” or “What do you think about that?”  For most people, the answer is obvious. Asking “What” questions builds relationships and relationships build networks. I sometimes joke that the only bad “What” question I can think of is “What in the hell were you thinking?”  You probably want to use that one sparingly.

The second theme I heard from these leaders is that they’re being intentional about slowing themselves down enough to ask a few questions about the other person.  These are not rocket scientist questions that only world class networkers can come up with. They’re questions like,  “What did you do this weekend?” or “How are your kids?”  The key, of course, is listening to the answer and then asking a few follow up questions based on what the other person says. It’s called having a conversation and, believe it or not, it only takes about five minutes more to turn a business conversation into a personal conversation that strengthens the relationship that in turn strengthens your network.

In talking with the group about this, I shared a story about a client I worked with a few years ago who was viewed by his fellow executives as being difficult to work with. After a couple of meetings with him, I could see why. No matter what I asked him or how I asked it, he would answer with the fewest words possible and then come to a dead stop. He gave me absolutely nothing to work with.  One day after about 15 minutes of a very terse conversation, I asked him if I could share an observation. He said, “Yes.” (Literally, that’s all he said.)  In response, I said, “You are probably the most difficult person to have a conversation with that I’ve ever worked with.”  He looked truly shocked and asked why. I replied that, in my experience, when I asked people questions about what was going on they’d give me more than a few words of response and, oftentimes, would keep the conversation going by asking me a question or two in response.

Honestly, I thought I’d lost him at that point. He was more or less silent and I wrapped up the meeting thinking that was probably it for that engagement. That was until I talked with him on the phone two or three weeks later.  There was an unprecedented (for me anyway) level of excitement in his voice as he told me, “I’ve been doing what you told me to do and I can’t believe how well it works!”  My thought was that I’d only made an observation and hadn’t really told him to do anything so I asked,  “What have you been doing?”  He said, “When I’m in a meeting and I’m feeling like it’s at the point where there’s nothing else to say, I ask one more question.  I can’t believe what I’m getting back from asking one more question and am finding that some of these people are actually pretty interesting and have some good ideas.”

Guess what?  When I checked in with his colleagues a few months later, everyone commented on how much easier he was to work with and how they were enjoying working with him.

So, in addition to “What” questions and asking about the other person, there’s a third idea for you on how to build your network with questions. When you think the conversation is over, ask one more question.