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What are you working on?

We have a guest blogger on Direct Talk today - Heather Hollick, a speaker, writer, and coach on a mission to make the world a better place to work.

Networking is important. Or, to put it more accurately, building and maintaining a web of mutually beneficial, professional relationships is paramount to success in business and in life. And yet so many of us struggle to network well.

We want to connect with people. We want to be helpful. Unfortunately, most of us are not very good at figuring out how to do so. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the opening volleys of a conversation between two people who have just met.

Imagine the scenario in which you meet someone new. After the exchange of names and minor pleasantries, what do you say? If you’re like most people, you will ask, “What do you do?”

On the one hand, this little four-word question is a valiant attempt at keeping the conversation going, perhaps even taking it to a new place. On the other hand, “What do you do?” always falls flat. It’s a rather impersonal query offering little that is stimulating. It opens no doors in your quest to be helpful. “So, you are a doctor (or a project manager, or a VP, or whatever). That sounds nice.”

The problem with asking someone their occupation is that it doesn’t produce anything actionable. In your quest to be helpful, how do you work with the fact that someone is a doctor or a project manager?

What are you working on?

Instead of asking, “What do you do?” or “Where are you from?”, ask the most powerful networking question in the world: “What are you working on?” This opens the door to the heart of what’s important to a person.

“What do you do?” is a great networking question. It is delightfully ambiguous, serving as an invitation go somewhere interesting with the conversation.

Depending on who you are, where you are, and how well you know the person, they may answer with something safe and mundane or venture into territory more risky or profound. They may talk about something they are working on at home or at work. Or they may reveal something more vulnerable, perhaps an aspiration in their career or in life.

When people talk about what they are working on you can’t help but lean in to be helpful. You start racking your brain, looking for ideas to share or people you think they should meet. You’re naturally inclined to tap your wealth of knowledge and the breadth of your network.

Try it. The next time you find yourself in a networking situation, bite your tongue when you are tempted to ask the person what they do. Ask them, instead, what they’re working on. You don’t need any context, preamble, or further explanation. Just ask “What are you working on?” and let the question hang in the air. Every time I ask this question people light up. You will be amazed at the where the conversation goes and the ways in which you discover to be helpful.

Heather Hollick is a teacher, coach, consultant, and writer on networking, careers, culture, collaboration, team dynamics, and leadership development. She is also the author of the new book, Helpful: A Guide to Life, Careers, and the Art of Networking, which is now available on her website, on Amazon, and at fine bookstores everywhere.

Heather is currently on book tour in North Carolina through June 14. Join her for her kickoff event hosted by the Jobs Network of the North Carolina Biotech Center on June 10 from 5:00 to 7:00 PM. See the event page on her website for more information.

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