I was having lunch with a new friend, Meaghan McCann the other day over at one of my favorite networking spots, Marnee Thai. Meaghan is a Google Adwords expert. She teaches regular workshops about the subject and can really help people get their search engine marketing off to a good start. She’s also a parent of two young kids (something we have in common).

One of the things we talked about over lunch was the challenges of the wonderful skills of mimicry that three- and four-year-olds seem to possess. Of course, by “mimicry”, I mean “the tendency to repeat everything they hear, regardless of its appropriateness.” While there isn’t much we can do to stop the little ones from repeating lines from every movie and television program they’ve seen (my daughter Kaylie has a career in musical theater waiting for her), as networkers, we should always bear in mind that most of us still have a tendency to repeat what we hear.

And that can actually work to our benefit.

When attending events and one-to-one’s, one of the best things we can do is to have a list of open-ended, feel-good questions tucked away in the back of our minds. If we can do this, we never have to worry about dead spots in the conversation. We also don’t have to worry about becoming a conversational hog in order to fill them. All we have to do is ask another question (and actually be interested in their answer).

The cool thing is this keeps them talking about themselves (one of their favorite topics). The danger comes when they start to run down, they will repeat what we just said. Namely, they will likely ask us the exact same thing that we asked them. This can be a good thing. After all, if we just asked them who their perfect client would be (or who they want to meet, or what challenges they expect in the coming year, etc), then when they turn the question back on us, we get to tell them exactly how they can help us.

I do have some caveats with respect to this technique. First, it must always be done with sincerity. If you are asking them how you can help them, you had better mean it. If you don’t, they will know that you are “techniquing” them without any real interest in helping them — and they will take just about as much interest in you. Or less.

Second, any question that you have in your repertoire, you had better be prepared with an answer. You have to be willing to give up a little of yourself — to let them see who you are. If you just say “I don’t know” to everything they ask, they will get the impression that you are either trying to evade the question (making you deceitful) or holding yourself aloof (making you arrogant) or clueless (making you incompetent). None of these attributes make for a very good foundation upon which to build a strong relationship.

Remember, just like a three-year-old, a networking connection will often mirror your behaviors. Just be prepared for it. Understanding this phenomenon will help you communicate your own goals and needs as you actively search for ways to help those in your network.

Photo credit: Sigurd Decroos