« 5. EI skills: How to ask engaging questions »

By Rachel Green. Director, The Emotional Intelligence Institute; Author of "Business networking" (now out of print).

The ability to engage people when business networking, so they feel comfortable talking to you and interested in what you have to say, draws on a number of key emotional intelligence and EQ skills.

Have you noticed how much of the conversation at business networking events or social functions revolves around questions?

Questioning is a highly important part of all conversation, and conversations are pivotal in establishing trust and relationships.

What are the best networking questions to ask?

Which questions should you ask and when?

How many questions do you need?

These and many more aspects of questioning during business networking conversations will be discussed, to help you leave people feeling positive about meeting you.

Being able to engage people when networking is an important emotional intelligence skill.

Emotional intelligence skill 1: Stop dead-ended questions

The types of questions you ask can make a great difference to the ease with which your conversations flow. There are certain questions that can kill conversation, without your meaning them to. These are called closed questions, as they usually only require a one word response, such as "yes" or "no".

For example, closed questions include those that start with:

  • "Did you?"
  • "Do you?"
  • "Have you?"

Similarly closed questions may start or end with the phrases:

  • "Isn't it?"
  • "Wasn't it?" or
  • "Hasn't it?".

For instance, the following questions may only get a "yes" or "no" as an answer:

  • "Great dinner, wasn't it?"
  • "Are you enjoying yourself?"
  • "Have you had a good year?"
  • "Wasn't it good to see the stock market improvements?" or
  • "Isn't it a relief to see good staff survey figures?"

Avoid these closed questions. They do not successfully engage most people. You need to emotionally engage people with your questions.

If you are not engaging people then you may stimulate emotions such as boredom, dislike, contempt, or something equally counter productive in the people with whom you are talking.

This is not emotionally intelligent. 

You may also find emotions, such as, awkwardness, discomfort, or embarrassment arise in yourself when you find the conversation and questions going nowhere and you are all facing awkward silences.

Again this is not emotionally intelligent networking.

Brush up on your questioning skills.

Emotional intelligence skill 2: Ask open-ended questions

Instead of asking closed questions, ask questions that give people plenty of scope to respond. In this way you can give them the opportunity to choose what to talk to you about.

For instance, instead of saying,

  • "Did you see the football on the weekend" you might say, "What kinds of sports do you like?" Or ask an even more open question, "What kinds of things did you do on the weekend?"
  • Instead of saying, "Have you seen the productivity report?" you might ask, "What are your reactions to the productivity report?"
  • Instead of, "What do you do?" you might ask, "What kinds of things does your work involve?"
  • Similarly, rather than, "We need more options to keep older people at work, don't we?" you might ask, "In what ways can we encourage the baby boomers to stay at work?"

By using plural questions, i.e. kinds of things, plans, experiences, ways, highlights ... you'll have even more chance of the conversation flowing.

You can also ask comparative questions, such as, "How does a) compare with b)?".

For example:

  • "How did this year compare with last year?"
  • "How does your new job compare to your previous one?"
  • "How did your holiday in India compare with your one in Bali?"
  • "How does your first child compare to your second one?"
  • "How does the new Vice President compare to the outgoing Vice President?"

Open questions give you the best chance of engaging people in interesting and easy conversation when business networking. The more engaging your questions and conversations the better the relationship that will develop. That's emotionally intelligent!

Emotional intelligence skill 3: Question and talk

Having spoken so much about questions, a warning: there is more to an engaging networking conversation than questions. Beware of asking too many questions, and too quickly. Don't interrogate people with questions. You may put the person off, and that is not fruitful. Manage their emotions in a more positive way.

It's a myth that all you have to do is to ask another person to talk. This is not what a real conversation is about.

Instead of just questioning, you also need to share information about yourself. In other words you also need to engage in the talking part of conversation too. It is the equal sharing of talking and questioning that builds trust.

If you ask a question and the person responds by telling you something about himself/herself, then you can respond in like kind and tell him/her something about yourself. There is no need to go straight to another question. Using your emotional intelligence means you have to consider how the person is feeling in response to your questions, and how you can best build trust between you.

Emotional intelligence skill 4: Always respond fully

You will be asked questions by the people you meet. Always respond to what the other person is asking, no matter how bad the question.

It doesn't matter how poor the skills are of the person you are talking to. Even if you get a closed question such as "Have you been busy?" do not limit your answer to "yes" or "no". Say more.

Expand your answer, e.g. talk about the kinds of things you've been doing.

Be kind, be generous and be helpful. Build connections, build trust and build a relationship; that's the purpose of business networking after all and that's why using your emotional intelligence skills can be an asset to you.

Emotional intelligence skill 5: Ask interesting questions

Ask questions that demonstrate an interest in the other person. Also, follow-up the questions you have asked with other questions if it means you will open up the conversation and more fully engage the other person.

One very simple step you can take is to ask a question related to what has been said. It doesn't have to be complicated, long or academic. It simply has to show an interest and help the other person to feel good about talking to you. Yes, emotional intelligence even comes into play at this simple level. Everything you do influences the other person's emotional reaction to you, your conversation, and your business. 

For example, someone once told me that he had gone to Germany. He found people would ask him what he did in Australia. Now his answer, I know, is unusual, but it shouldn't stop the conversation. He would say truthfully, "I live in a monastery".

It's not your ordinary answer I know, but how simple it would have been to then ask a question and to show interest. He was disappointed and hurt that no one asked him a single question in response. Do not leave people feeling ignored, slighted or let-down by your inability to explore what has been said.

All they needed to have said was:

  • "What's it like?" or
  • "What led you to live there?" or
  • "What kinds of things do you do there?"

When you ask relevant questions you demonstrate that you have not only heard what was said but are interested in the person. That's good conversation. That's good business networking. And it's emotionally intelligent.

Develop your business networking and emotional intelligence

There is so much more to learn about how to engage people, how to develop high levels of emotional intelligence, and how to be brilliant at business networking so you build your business. We have only scratched the surface here. Would you like yourself or your team to be even more skilled at business networking so they engage the people who matter? You can. With us

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