The No. 1 Networking Question: ‘How Can I Help You?’

All true networking starts with this question.

Too frequently, people enter the networking arena with a self-focused agenda. Their own sense of urgency—the need to find a job or make a sale or find sponsors for the gala—drives their interests. And, let’s face it, sometimes we do have a specific agenda. In those moments, it’s important to be up front about the reason for reaching out to others.

I contend, however, that true networking starts with the question, “How can I help you?”

In an interview I once heard with Robert Cialdini, the great psychologist and expert on how our behavior is impacted by social mores, he suggested the rule of reciprocation is pounded into our psyches from childhood.

“We are obligated to give back to others, the form of behavior that they have first given to us,” he said. “Essentially thou shall not take without giving in return.” He went on to claim that every human culture on the planet trains its members in this rule.

The Reciprocity Ring

To further support the notion, in his book, “Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success,” Adam Grant refers to the Reciprocity Ring, an exercise originally developed by University of Michigan sociologist Wayne Baker and his wife, Cheryl.

Essentially, each participant is told to make a request to the rest of the group, which is then instructed to use their knowledge, resources and connections to help fulfill the request. Requests relate to personal and professional lives and include everything from job leads to travel tips.

In every case, the Reciprocity Ring proved an extremely powerful experience, and the number of requests actually fulfilled was remarkable. When given the opportunity to help, to contribute, to expand the pie, people step up and make it happen.

So, you ask, what does this have to do with networking? As I often state, the best networkers are those who are generous with their time, information and resources. By engaging in a cycle—in a ring—of reciprocity, the “gifts” one receives in return for his or her generosity are many times greater than what he or she contributed. It is an abundance mentality and serves to expand our collective “wealth.”

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

What to give? Well, in addition to your time, be generous with your information, resources and contacts. Share an interesting article, website or book. Provide a warm introduction among connections. Extend an invitation to a dinner party. Offer some insight on a new restaurant, movie, handyman or other useful tidbit. You get the idea. The more you give, the more compelled your contacts will feel to reciprocate in some way. It’s human nature.

Don’t get me wrong. You must genuinely be willing to give before you get. You must not EXPECT something specific in exchange. And, though you may not have a clear notion of what the return is going to be, assume your contact has something of value to bring.

If, over time, you continually give and receive nothing in return, you might choose to stop investing in that relationship. However, as you will discover, when you give… and the recipient reciprocates … you will be prompted to give some more … then they will likely give some more.

It’s a virtuous cycle that will open up your network, ensure your own happiness and make the world a better place!