Networking can be awkward.
Of course, you’re hoping that your relationships with the people you meet will bolster your career — but you don’t want to put them off by soliciting their help right off the bat.
In fact, says Dave Kerpen, you probably shouldn’t ask for favors right away.
Kerpen is the founder and CEO of Likeable Local, a social-media software company, and the author of “The Art of People.”
In the book, he explains that the first time you meet a prospective client, colleague, or friend, you should not ask “How can you help me?”
Instead, the best question to ask when you meet an influential person is “How can I help you?”
Kerpen writes that offering your help can have one of two results.
Either the person will tell you how you can help them, “after which he will feel indebted to you, connected to you, and appreciative of you and eventually feel compelled to return the favor and help you one day.”
Or “the person will decline politely, probably because she doesn’t know how you can help her, but will feel that you care and feel connected to you and be much more emotionally invested in helping you eventually.”
Indeed, Kerpen tells Business Insider that people take him up on his offer to help them only about 10% of the time, but he believes it still deepens their connection.
Regardless of whether you expect the person to accept your offer, Kerpen says that it has to be genuine — you really need to be in a position to assist the person. And you might want to follow the question with some specific suggestions as to how you can help. For example, maybe you can introduce that person to someone else influential in your network.
Then, the next time you speak with the person, you can request their help and they’ll probably be happy to give it.
To explain why this strategy works, Kerpen cites the work of Wharton psychologist Adam Grant, who has found that most people are “matchers.” In other words, when you do something or offer to do something for someone, they feel more inclined to help you in return.
In the book, Kerpen describes an interaction in which someone surprised him by asking how they could help. Michael, a financial adviser, once asked Kerpen if he could meet with him for 15 minutes because he had just one question he wanted to ask. After a few minutes of introducing himself and his business, Michael asked: “How can I help you?”
These were the early days of Likeable Local, and Kerpen told Michael that he could benefit from some introductions to technology investors. Sure enough, Michael followed through by making those introductions.
Soon after that meeting, Kerpen realized that he needed a financial adviser, and he started working with Michael.
“He just was insistent upon only being there to help me at first,” Kerpen says, “and that’s what was so compelling.”
The only downside to asking how you can help? “People don’t even believe it,” Kerpen says.
Once they realize you’re serious, however, they’ll likely feel warmer toward you and more open to helping you in any way they can.