“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”
~ Rabindranath Tagore

Always look for ways to be of service.

It’s sort of a mantra for great networkers. The problem is, when you sit down across from someone and straight-up ask the question “How can I help?” The usual response is “I don’t know,” or “I’m good!”

I ran into this situation recently. I was meeting with a new networking partner. We first came in contact when she attended one of my programs and loved my message so much that she picked up a copy of my book and read the whole thing cover-to-cover. She had several ideas on people to whom she could connect me and even offered her conference room for any training programs I might run in the future. She is a remarkably giving person.

Then, I asked her how I could help in return.

“I don’t know. I’ve been doing this business for a while, so I’ve got a pretty good system. I guess I don’t need anything really.”

How are you supposed to be of service if they don’t even know what they want or need? If they can’t figure it out, it’s hardly your fault that you can’t help them, right?

Well, maybe it’s mostly their fault. Regardless, that doesn’t change the fact the the more you can help them the stronger the relationship will be and the greater potential benefit you might receive from the connection. So maybe we can come up with a different approach that might get the results you want from the conversation.

The problem is the question. When you put someone on the spot and ask “How can I help?”, it’s kind of like having a guest in your home and asking them “What would you like to drink?” Unless they know you well enough that they have a pretty good idea of what’s in your refrigerator, the response is likely to be “I don’t know” or “No thanks.”

With beverage selection, you can always make a brief list — coffee, tea, or milk — and you are good to go. Unfortunately, that plan won’t work as well in networking. Think of all the possible resources you could place in their service and you’ll realize how long it would take to share that list. In order to achieve our networking goals, on the other hand, let’s consider five questions that might just lead to the answers you need.

  1. What challenges do you think you’ll be facing this year? Maybe they need more business. Or perhaps they have all the business they want, but they are looking for employees to do the work. It might not even be about business. They might be struggling with some other aspect of their personal or professional life. If you have experienced that struggle, too, you might be able to recommend resources that can help.
  2. What are you hoping to achieve in the next quarter? This is simply the flip side of question #1. With the first, you are helping them to avoid failure, in this case, you are helping them to achieve success.
  3. What have you been working on recently? Where have they been spending their energy? Would they like to do more of the same? Sometimes, our networking partners have a hard time telling us the kinds of projects they are seeking, but if they can tell us what they’ve been doing, it will point us in the right direction.
  4. Who have you been working with lately? Similar to #3, this question will tell you the types of clients your partner would like to serve. Assuming they would like to continue serving this group, perhaps you know a way they could connect. You might even be able to make an introduction or two.
  5. What would you love to be doing more of with your business right now? They may simply say they want to make more money, but they may also want to train their employees better, become more visible in the community, or rank higher on some “best places to work” list. How can you serve them in growing where they want to grow?

Sometimes our desire to help can actually get in the way of finding a path to serve. “How can I help?” puts them on the spot and they may not have a ready answer. Taking a more finessed approach — and listening with the ears of service — can make all the difference.

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