There is a German saying that roughly translates to “Those who ask are in the lead”1 that nails it pretty well for me. Now, I don’t mean to say, the one who asks is the boss (even though the saying is often interpreted like that). To me it rather means: the one with the questions acts as a guide through the dialogue that hopefully ensues. To navigate toward a constructive, fruitful conversation, the mindset you start out with is essential. Having the right questions not only helps you get into that mindset, it actually also helps triggering it in your counterpart.

Questioningly looking dog
Image CC BY 2.0 courtesy of Taro the Shiba Inu, on Flickr

This whole article is still about networking – of course the question types I describe here also fit other contexts, and you can easily apply them to your liking – but what I mean to say is that they hopefully help to get my take on networking across to you. It is about mutual giving, seeking to understand, appreciation and respect. Yes, somewhere in the process of that first conversation with a potential networking partner you will exchange your business cards. (Watch out, there’s product placement coming up!) If you go about it in a smart way, it may even be a digital business card, which will ensure that you get much more data across to your dialogue partner and with less hassle, than if it were a mere paper version. The trick is to use a QRu QR-code, the benefits of which can be reviewed here.

Question Types

There are several types of questions that I have come to use. Some tend to be more on the superficial side, some lean more to the professional area, and others go in the direction of personal development. As you may have guessed, how well they fit depends highly on the context. They all have a very appreciative approach to them, as I am a huge fan of appreciative inquiry. What they also have in common is that the answers interest me. So I am genuinely keen on the conversation they may start.

The categories that I have developed or discovered over time are the following and will be explained in detail below:

  1. Presumed expertise questions
  2. Incisive questions
  3. Brainpooling questions
  4. Jaunt questions

I have not listed small talk questions here, because I believe there are sufficient resources on the web for those. (See the list of recommended links at the end of the article.)

Presumed Expertise Questions

Assuming you are at an event or a party, ask the other for advice. This can be quite superficial:

“Ah, the food looks wonderful. How to choose? Which dish from the buffet / the menu would you recommend?”

Of course this type of question needs to be accompanied by a follow-up question. You can try

“So, do you generally aim for dishes that you know, to gage the quality of the buffet, or rather try new things to be inspired? What is your experience with that?”

I did this once at an event on a gender equality. I actually met a woman at the buffet and we started chatting about the quality of the food. I asked her, whether she already had a place to sit – she in return asked me to join her. It turned out she was a coach specialized on gender equality issues. You could throw any topic at her from maternity leave to equal pay—she was quite an expert—and is still a highly appreciated partner in my network.

You can also presume the other is an expert on things that are a lot more profound.

“You seem like you have attended similar events before: how to you decide, which presentations you attend? What would be your insider tip on how to maximize the learning with such an information overflow?”

If you like the answer, you can see if you can latch on to this person for a while and see where it takes you.

If you are really daring, you can ask something like this:

“I am not sure, whether to attend the workshop on negotiating salaries or the one on assertiveness in meetings. If you could spontaneously decide for me, which one should I go to? And why?”

It helps if the question does not come across too seriously. More like a game approach. If you like the answer, then go right ahead. If you don’t, let the other person know you appreciate their reasoning, but just realized that the other choice rings more true to you. You can of course also ask them to join you.

Incisive Questions

I used to call them growth questions in my mind. I use them in situations that trigger the little coach in me. Now, in my training to be a coach I learned that as coaches we should not inflict our coaching approaches on innocent “bystanders”. And I believe this is an important rule. Yet I found that a little assumption jiggling can work wonders. And in my book, the best way to rebut an assumption is by questioning it.

Then I discovered the wonderful book by Nancy Kline: “Time to Think”. Her aim is to enable thinking environments so that people can use their own brain. What a revolutionary idea, to use your brain to think. Shazy crit! In a nutshell, Kline describes incisive questions as freeing peoples’ minds from assumptions.2 Incisive questions aim higher than the status quo. They also have the tendency to be a bit more personal, so you should have a little bit of trust building happening before you ask them. Also, they take a bit (i.e. years!) of practice, so beware!

“In the Q&A session after the talk about the burnout syndrome you mentioned that you have an immense workload and feel like you are not efficient enough to get everything done. If you could delegate 30% of your work, how would you go about your job?”

“In the communication seminar you said that you like connecting people. And that you relish the ideas that have sprung from these connections, especially as, unfortunately, you are not the creative type yourself. What if you knew that every person is creative in their own style, which topics would you address with your creative ideas?”

Now, that last assumption (“I am not creative”) or a variation thereof pops up in my creativity workshops quite frequently. Fortunately I have the “authority” to refute that and can even cite facts against it—but an incisive question remains the most effective way to turn the doubters into believers. Because they can think about it for themselves. So, even if you don’t want to go into the depths of a personal question or topic: providing a conversation environment that fits the description of a thinking environment is generally a great idea, if you really want to hear new thoughts from another person. I have listed all ten factors in the box below—which does not summarize the book in any way, not even close! – so you might get intrigued to take a closer look at it.

Brainpooling Questions

At a wonderful creativity conference that I attended several times (CREA) it was really easy to get into growth conversations—people were not only very open minded and outgoing, the topic of allowing more creativity in our lives was (as you can imagine) quite present. So the natural consequence was that you could quickly dive into exchanging experiences on how to allow for more inspiration in your daily routine, more creative thinking in your work team, more quality time with your spouse and/or (ever creative) kids.

“I find myself too entangled in routine to make time for creative musing. What do you do, to gain more creative space in your life?”

“Did you just attend the workshop on deferring judgment? I thought it was grand! I just fear, the years of developing the habit to evaluate and criticize things at first sight, will be hard to counter. Any ideas?”

This would of course only be the start of a conversation. It serves as an invitation to brainstorm together, lowering the barrier for uttering ideas, as it is clear that these thoughts do not have to be polished up or anything – rather it is an opportunity to think out loud, or spontaneously pool your brains.

Jaunt Questions

This species is a mix between a lighthearted fun question and a question to uncover hidden gems. You can extend the list at will with any questions that are somewhat unexpected and make the other person think about their answer. Or at least smile…

  1. What do you think is the most attractive city in the world to live in?
  2. If you could give a huge bouquet of flowers to any person (you don’t have to know them personally) to thank them for something, who would it be and why?
  3. Which questions for mankind would you like to have answered in your lifetime?
  4. When was the last time you had a pillow fight? Did feathers fly?
  5. Do you prefer theater or the movies? Why?
  6. If you could devise a radio or TV show, what would it be about?
  7. What does it take to get you off the couch on a lazy weekend?
  8. Did you ever want to take the blame for something you didn’t do? What was it and why?
  9. If you discovered the fountain of youth, what would you do?
  10. Imagine you found a treasure box full of personality traits and you would be allowed pick one for yourself and to toss one trait of yours. What would you get and what would you let go?
  11. Which feature would you add to a car to make it more convenient for you to use?
  12. If you could see your future, without being able to change it, would you want to see it? Why do you think this way?
  13. Are you a city-person or do you favor the countryside? Why?
  14. If you had a ship that could take you to any destination, where would you go?
  15. Do you believe that in the future, robots and AI technology can develop emotions?
  16. Imagine someone offered you one million dollars to never ever touch a phone again in your life. Would you accept?
  17. What is your first holiday memory? Did you ever go there again as an adult?
  18. If you could erase one routine task from your day/week, what would it be? What would you need to actually make it go away?
  19. Would you want to have a photographic memory? Why?
  20. Is there a food that always reminds you of your childhood? What situation comes to your mind?
  21. Imagine you could use up time from the end of your life now (e.g. your days would be 2h longer, but your life would be 1/12th shorter), would you want that?
  22. How about the other way around: if you had 2h less per day but would prolong your life in the end, would you want to “save up” lifetime?
  23. Some get creative driving the car or taking a shower. What is your ideal idea time?
  24. What was the earliest career wish you remember having? What did you like about that? Why did it change?
  25. Which three items would you take on a 1-year space trip, assuming necessities for survival are taken care of?

Straightforward Confession: The Job Question

I truly believe that to build a good network you have to find out a lot about your network partners to-be. Not only facts but also attitudes and preferences and how they think and where they are going. After all you want to establish a basis that holds beyond that first talk. The other person needs to have a reason to use the contact data you have transferred via you digital business card. All this works best with questions. If my attempts to map out my approach to networking conversations don’t do it for you, I have one last option. It’s the ace up my sleeve if all other question types fail me. But it has to be applied in the right way, and with the according follow-up and all that chichi. And with a little twist that might surprise you but which has worked extremely well in my experience. It’s the “job-question”. Here’s how I use it:

“Hi, my name is Maren, I am an innovation consultant. I heard your comment about time pressure. Since I really can’t come up with anything clever on this topic but would really like to strike up a conversation with you, I will simply ask: what do you do for a living?”

The “trick” is to be honest about the reason why you find the other person interesting enough to talk to them, as well as blunt about the fact that you are not coming up with that perfect, sophisticated networking question that the other person would deserve. And it gives you time to find a topic or aspect (in the other person’s answer) that you can then steer the conversation to.

The idea of this article was to provide you with topics for networking conversation jump starters. How did it go? Do let me in on your experiences, I would be very curious to hear what worked for you, what didn’t and where you might have needed some more detail. Drop me a line!

Further reading

A nice compendium of small talk questions sorted by topic:

Some ideas how to turn standard small talk questions around:

And here are five questions that you can keep in mind as a backup plan…

  1. Wer fragt, der führt

  2. Finding out about the other 9 factors that make up what she named a thinking environment makes the whole book really worthwhile reading.