Anyone who has ever changed schools as a kid understands how important it is to build rapport with a new group of people. Whether those people are potential clients, your colleagues or the other members of your new committee, your ability to establish a personal bond will help determine the success of your relationship.
Part of the process is drawing people out and learning what makes them tick. There are many useful rapport-building questions you can use for that purpose, but using them effectively will usually require some advance research.
Where and How To Look
When you’re about to spend time with someone for professional reasons, either as a colleague or a potential client, the logical place to begin is on LinkedIn. You’ll find basics such as their schools and work history, and you can infer some things about them from what they share, write and re-post. Look for industry events they’ve attended; if you’ve been there as well (or your company has) it’s something to leverage.
As your next step you could search your potential contact across multiple social media sites and other public venues, but it’s easier and more efficient to use Spokeo’s dedicated people search tools. You already know your contact’s name and employer, and LinkedIn would have furnished an employment history and schools, so you should have no difficulty identifying which search results apply to the person you’re researching.
Make a point of doing multiple searches: Use variations on your contact’s name; and search emails, physical addresses and phone numbers, if you have them. The combined search results should give you a wealth of information on your contact, from their presences on social media and special interest forums to personal contact information. It will likely represent more information than you can — or should — use.
Drawing the Line
At this point it’s important to remember that collecting information is not your goal, it’s using that information unobtrusively to help your contact feel at ease with you. Restraint is crucial, otherwise you risk coming off as creepy or downright unethical.
Consider the context, and the source of your information. If your contact is new in the position and moved for the job, it’s completely appropriate to ask how they’re settling in (and to offer suggestions about the new community). If you only know they’ve moved because a Spokeo search turned up the property records, find something else to talk about.
It’s not rocket science. Just ask yourself, “If a random stranger knew this much about me, would I be creeped out?” and guide yourself accordingly.
Appropriate Rapport-Building Questions
With your preliminary research in place, you can begin to plan out a list of rapport-building questions (or good networking questions, as the case may be). Prepare \in advance, covering different topics. That way you can roll with whichever direction the conversation goes and not have to perceptibly steer it to a specific topic.
For example, if your contact has posted recently about a major initiative at their workplace you might ask things like:
- Has that affected your workload noticeably?
- Have you enjoyed any early successes with the project?
- Are you getting any pushback?
If you’ve seen similar initiatives come and go in the past, frame the question in terms of your own personal experience. You might revise the pushback question, for example:
We had a similar initiative when I was at [company], and we really struggled to get IT on board. Do you find you’re getting that kind of pushback?
Has your contact recently been to an industry event that you also attended or where your (or their) company was represented? That opens the door to a number of possible questions:
- Which of the keynote speakers did you catch?
- Did anything at the event really stand out as interesting for you?
- I was at your booth a few times (only say this if it’s true!) and I thought [a detail of their presence] was pretty impressive. Were you involved in that?
If something noteworthy happened at the event, the kind of thing that everyone would definitely remember, build a specifically situational question around that. Obviously, you’ll tailor the question to the situation:
Were you still there when the storm closed the airport, or were you one of the lucky ones who got out early?
If your contact is relatively new in their current position, and especially if it’s a departure for them, that can be a fruitful avenue to pursue:
- Your degree was in [area] but now here you are in [role]. How did that happen?
- Your background is mostly in [role] but now you’ve transitioned to [new role]. Was that a conscious decision on your part or an opportunity you were offered?
- Has anything about the new role really surprised you?
- Do you feel that your background in [old role] gives you a different perspective on [new role]?
Moving is a near-universal experience, so if your contact moved to take up the current job — or if they’ve mentioned a move publicly — this serves as a potential point of contact:
- Do you find [new location] a big adjustment from [old location]?
- How are your kids settling in to their new schools? (Only ask this if there are kid photos in the room.)
What’s the best thing about your new neighborhood so far?
- Is there anything you miss about [old location] that you haven’t found in [new location] yet?
Building Rapport Requires a Bit of Finesse
No matter how prepared you are, sitting down with someone and rapping out a barrage of questions will feel forced and unnatural and maybe even oppressive. It’s especially counterproductive if you’re in sales, and you’re the umpteenth person to walk in with the same list of questions cribbed from a sales training blog. Remember, the goal is to be engaging. The opportunity to ask questions with a meaningfully personal element is why you did the research.
You may also find it helpful to draw rapport-building tips from fields outside the narrow confines of sales or professional networking. For example, health care professionals and therapists are highly motivated to establish rapport with their patients or clients — it can literally be a question of life and death — so you may find you’re able to adapt principles from those professions to suit yours.
Most importantly, allocate time after every meeting to take thorough notes. After doing the work of crafting and using good rapport-building questions, make a point of recording which ones resonated and which did not (and, most especially, the answers you received). Whatever points you’ve gained will be lost if you forget the answers or repeat yourself on the next visit.
Anyone Can Do This
Even if you don’t have the outgoing personality of a natural-born networker (assuming there is such a thing), you can network and build relationships effectively. The key is empathetic listening: not just making a tick on a mental clipboard, but engaging with the other person and listening for the personality that underlies the answers. If you do, you should find points of contact you can build on.
A famously extreme example is the case of musician Daryl Davis, a Black man who made it his project to find common ground with members of the KKK. If he could find success in such an adversarial context, there’s no reason you can’t do it in a normal business setting.