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What to Say When You're Networking

Think of these conversations as the verbal equivalent of ballroom dancing

By Elizabeth Isele

Networking can be a huge help when you're looking for a job. But even more important than the people you meet, it’s what you say  — more specifically, what you ask — in these conversations that is the key to successful networking.
Your buttonholing should be purposeful, strategic and catalytic. Don't waste valuable networking time with idle chitchat or blow it by asking too much too soon. And be sure to do assessments of your conversations when they’re over.
Just as there are three steps in a ballroom dancing waltz, there are three basic steps to networking — whether your conversation takes place in a formal networking event or over a cup of coffee. They are: build a relationship; explore possibilities and commit to action.

(MORE: How to Network Successfully If You're Over 40)

Step 1: Build a Relationship

As with ballroom dancing, the first step when networking is to put your best foot forward. Do that by starting the conversation focusing on where the two of you have alignment. What do you have in common regarding goals and expectations?

Identify what you've done and what you're good at and don't hesitate to mention some of your failures along the way. Your transparency will inspire equal honesty from others.

At this stage of the conversation, you are learning whether there is mutual respect and trust between you and if you have enough shared interests to take the second step.

Try asking questions like these to identify the skills and talents of the person with whom you are speaking (and, in the cours of the conversation, work in your own):

  • What's the most interesting opportunity you discovered in the past six weeks and what did you bring to the table to make it happen?
  • When was the last time you faced an impenetrable barrier? Was it really impenetrable?
  • What's the most valuable thing you've learned in the past 12 months? How did you learn it?

(MORE: How to Stay Visible If You're Out of Work)

Step 2: Explore Possibilities
As you begin to explore possibilities for this relationship, you need to understand if multiple perspectives are welcomed and mutual creativity is encouraged.

Will you, for example, push each other to think outside the box to problem-solve? Have you established enough trust to break down your protective, self-limiting walls? Is this a relationship that will foster risk-taking — well-reasoned risks that you passionately believe in?

Never underestimate the power of passion as your ultimate productivity tool. Don’t let fear of failure circumscribe your creative thinking.

Three questions to ask the person you’re networking with to help assess the creative future of this relationship:

  • What was your last real breakthrough? How did it happen?
  • Is there a "positive disrupter" you admire?
  • What do you think is the difference between learning and failure?

(MORE: Older Job Seekers: Get Social and Mobile)

Step 3: Commit to Action
Now that you understand the ways in which you're in sync, the next step is action. This is the time to help one another, make specific requests and share resources.
Be generous. Offer up your contacts and your expertise. If you volunteer to make referrals, do this on a professional level by clarifying conditions and standards for fulfilling those requests.
Point to sectors that are growing, trends that will impact business success in the future and ways you and/or your networking partner could fit in the mix.
Questions to ask the person you’re networking with to help guide you in this action mode, include:

  • Where are you stuck? What do you need to get unstuck?
  • Who was important in solving your last dilemma? What did he or she do that was different?
  • What is the difference between what you are going to do and what you are going to do next?

Assess the Conversation

Soon after you've had a networking conversation, do an internal 30-second assessment and ask yourself these questions:

  • What did I learn?
  • What are the implications of what I learned for my work or the job I'd like to secure?
  • What action or actions can I take based on what I learned?
  • What worked during the conversation and why?
  • What got in the way?
  • What could I improve on for my next networking conversation?
  • What will I do differently next time?

You might even want to jot down notes after the conversation, putting them on the back of the person’s business card.
This may seem like a lot work, but it will pay off in the future. When you know you’ll be making notes, you learn to listen better, ask better questions and note body language nuances.
Don’t forget: like ballroom dancing, the more you practice, the easier it gets.
Elizabeth Isele wrote this article in part with support from the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellows program, a project of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.

Elizabeth Isele is a serial senior entrepreneur. She is co-founder of, co-founder of, founder of and co-creator with Participant Media of the 2015 global summit series on Senior and Multigenerational Entrepreneurship. Read More
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