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What did you do this weekend? It’s a common enough Monday morning question. It usually involves recounting your adventures or answering with few monosyllabic words followed by a hollow, apathetic shrug. Then you ask the same, and get the same response. Meh all ‘round.

It’s a very superficial conversation, if it can be even called a conversation.

What if you were meeting with clients or stakeholders whose trust you needed to gain quickly. Could you do so with small talk such as this?

No.

In most cases, it takes time to build trust, find common ground and create the right environment to influence. Doing this is called building rapport.

Influential people, good leaders especially, are skilled at building rapport. Think of a time that you met someone you felt that you opened up to immediately. You just felt like sharing your story and they felt like an immediate friend. Time felt like it was flying, you were probably very productive in your meeting, and very-likely, this person achieved his or her goals in the meeting.

And very-likely, this person was good with power questions.

What is a power question?

The term power questions comes from Andrew Sobel, who wrote a book on the topic.

A power question is a provocative, specific, open-ended question that really allows a person to open up to you and feel as if you care about what they have to say. Using power questions in conversation will get your partner talking, keep the attention off you and more on them, which is what everyone wants.

So, tell me…

One builds rapport by being interested in the person one wishes to build it with. So, when someone asks you about your weekend, you say you went fishing, saw some friends and barbecued some burgers. The next thing that comes out of your mouth must *not be about you.* The next thing you say must direct the attention back on your inquisitor.

You say: “So, tell me about the best part of your weekend.”

Wait…that’s not a question. That’s an order. By not asking, you are showing confidence. You are also placing yourself as the leader of the conversation. By ordering, you’re making clear you want to make conversation out of interest, not social obligation.

For rapport-building, you start your line of questioning off with an order: “So tell me…”

“So, tell me how you got into this line of work.”

“So, tell me how you’re dealing with the challenges of this project.”

“So, tell me what aspects of minimalist website design you like best.”

“So, tell me about your favourite food from your vacation.”

When you say this, you are looking directly into their eyes and if not completely smiling, you are looking friendly and interested. You are essentially lobbing the metaphorical ball of conversation onto their side of the court so they can send it back to you without effort.

Your order should also be specific. For example, instead of inquiring generally about their vacation, project or dinner outing, you have them tell you about the food on their vacation or the challenges of the project or the hair in their cannelloni.

Repeat after me

After this, do you get into the power questions? No! Patience young Jedi.

Next, you play the repeating game, and it goes like this:

You: “So, tell me how you did on your 10K race this weekend.”

Them: “Well, it was really crowded. I think it brought down my time, but it’s better than I expected.”

You: “So, the race was really crowded and even though the crowds brought down your time, you’re faster than the time you received.” *thinks deeply about this*

What just happened there? That’s right. You repeated what they just said to you.

Mind blowing!

This tells them that you heard them. You also show them that you are thinking about what they just said. Because they are an *important person* who can make things happen for you…if you play your cards right.

In order to ensure effectiveness, you’ve not only got to mirror the meaning of their words but also the tone of their voice. If they’re excited, you get excited, too. If they’re bland, make sure you express through your tone that what they are saying is interesting without overdoing it.

Benjamin Disraeli said, “talk to a man about himself and he will listen for hours.”

Question time

Okay, okay, now you can get to the questions. To recap, you’ve ordered them to tell you something (flipping the focus off you and onto them), mirrored back their answer (ensuring they know you’re listening and confirming that what they have to say is important), next you continue the conversation.

After you repeat back to them the same thing they just said. They will most likely answer with…

“Yes.”

Of course they will. You just reaffirmed something they said. They are not going to disagree with themselves. And if they do, you’ve done something wrong.

You’ve got to have your power questions in the hopper, because if you wait too long, the conversation is going to sink faster than the Titanic.

Now, there are so many variables to a conversation that it is impossible to have them pre-fabricated, but you can use some rules of thumb:

  • Make sure they’re open-ended. This means there are no yes and no answers. Each answer should have an explanation.
  • Be specific. Pick a few items out of what they’ve already told you and combine them to get specific. If you’re going down the wrong path you’ll know, or they will show you the path they want to go down by switching the topic. People tend to talk about what they know best.

Here are some example questions:

“How did you end up in cubist graphic design?”

“What’s an average workday for you like?”

“How do you think you would do if the race was less crowded?”

“What would you attribute to the team’s success?”

Then, you take something from the answer they give you and use it in their next question.

Verbing

How can you keep the conversation going? Conversations are all about momentum. If the momentum drops, the conversation drops. You’ve got to keep asking questions for the conversation to keep going.

A quick and easy tip for designing questions in a pinch is using is what’s called verbing.

Take a verb from the person’s answer and add it into your next question.

They say run. You ask about their run.

Them: “I ran a 10K. It was okay.”

You: “How often do you run?”

They say forgot. You ask about their forgetfulness.

Them: “I forgot about my son’s birthday. He’ll never be the same…”

You: “Ouch. How do you think you forgot that?”

They say clowned. You ask them about clowning.

Them: “We just clowned around all weekend. It was nuts.”

You: “Interesting…what exactly do you mean by clowning around?”

They say managed. You ask them about managing.

Them: “We’re managing a team of six right now.”

You: “What do you find works best about managing a team of that size?”

Rinse and repeat. Verbing: it’s a thing.

Bonus: The Black Arts Special

Emotion. It’s a powerful, powerful beast. Don’t go into an emotion question right away, because it may be a little too intense for a business meeting. And they might think you are hitting on them.

This is Black Arts stuff that is not to be taken lightly.

After you’ve run a few questions, and you’re both feeling comfortable, put on your best, impressed grin and ask: “How did that feel?”

Not how did you feel. How did that. By referring to that, you are not tying the emotion directly to them, which is much safer.

Imagine your best buddy just finished a marathon, and you’re waiting for him or her at the finish line:

You: “Right on, man! How did that feel?” *high-five*

Here’s a business scenario:

You: “So, tell me about the team dynamics on last week’s project.”

Them: “You know, we could have had a little more support from our partners. Deadlines got pushed because some of them were a little too slow.”

You: “It sounds like if your partners hadn’t been so slow, you could have completed the project faster.”

Them: “Definitely.”

You: “What was it about your team made the project a success despite this?”

Them: “Well, there’s this new kid. He’s unbelievable. He’s a wicked programmer from Silicon Valley. He pulled all-nighters for us.”

You: “That sounds great. How do you attract talent like that?”

Them: “We just focus on our people. The whole team is great…blah blah blah. Anyway, we nailed it despite the problem.”

You: “And how did that feel?”

Them: “Bloody amazing! I tell you, someone’s either going to buy us out or we’re going public.”

Only pull out the feels when you’ve assessed the situation. If you haven’t pumped them up enough yet or gone deeper into the conversation, trying to force being best buds will only come off as fakery.

Michael Allison is a specialist in the dark art of communications. Reach him via email: mcallison@gmail.com

Michael Allison is a leadership and communications strategist for the energy sector. Reach him via email: mcallison@gmail.com

Conclusion

Have we created the verbal formula to building rapport? Maybe.

1. Order an answer (ie: “So, tell me…”)

2. Repeat it back.

3. Power question.

4. Use verbing to avoid getting stuck.

5. Bring in the feelings (only after heeding my warning).

This all needs to be done in an emotionally friendly manner. You must feel the meaning of the words in order for this to be effective, otherwise, it will look like you’re a psychopath reading off a script.

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