June 19, 2012

Are your questions just an excuse to talk about yourself?

During my recent workshop on business networking at the World Tea Expo, there was a discussion about asking questions. Everyone agreed that open-ended questions are important in getting to know the people you're talking to, and building the foundation of a relationship. And we discussed how to demonstrate more interest in the other person rather than trying to get them interested in you.

However, things got a little sticky when one of the audience members described her question-asking process.

She said that she starts out her conversation with "What kind of tea do you like?" That sounded like a reasonable question when you're in the tea business. I frequently ask people that I'm meeting for the first time how much public speaking they do. It makes sense.

Then she went on to say that she would continue asking questions to narrow down the person's preference, until she was able to recommend one of her teas.

An audience member sitting next to her said, "Now you're not talking about them anymore; you're talking about yourself."

Oops! How many of us have done this?

We think we're having a conversation, but really, we're just leading the person down a winding path so we can talk about ourselves. That's not a conversation -- that's a sales pitch.

And there's nothing wrong with a sales pitch if that's what the person is there for. But at a networking event, we're getting to know each other and seeking to find out what others' needs are. Even if their needs don't involve our own services or products.

For most people, it's an unconscious process, and I'm not saying that the woman in my workshop was being sneaky or devious. But that doesn't mean the person you're talking to won't perceive you that way. Or just plain annoying.

You might meet someone who seems uninterested in what you have to offer, and that's okay. You're not at a networking even to bore people to tears talking about yourself. But a year down the road that person might refer you to someone who turns out to be your best client ever. And they probably remembered you because you were interested in them, found some things in common and were fun to talk to, not because you tricked them into talking about your business.

Be careful how you approach people when striving to build business relationships. If you come across as devious or manipulative because your "open-ended" questions are really just an excuse to talk about yourself, you're going to nip potential relationships in the bud.

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