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Advice / Job Search / Networking

3 Networking Questions You Should Avoid at All Costs (and What to Ask Instead)

We can all agree that having a strong network’s vital to a successful career. Our contacts help us get through sticky situations at work, learn about new opportunities, and even land new gigs. However, unlike personal relationships, professional ones can end quickly.

What many people don’t realize is that these working relationships can turn sour if you ask for too much—or even just ask for something in the wrong way. After hearing a few too many friends complain that a favorite contact went MIA, I started asking a few of my most successful colleagues what would make this happen. You know, what makes you delete someone’s number and run for the hills?

Here are the three most common responses I got:

1. “Can You Get My Friend a [Job/Interview/Coffee Meeting]?”

It’s one thing to ask a professional contact for help if you’re furthering your own career; it’s a whole other ballgame if you want that person to aid someone he or she doesn’t know at all.

Recently, a networking contact told me she had a friend who really wanted an introduction to my boss to learn more about the work she was doing. I made the introduction for this person I didn’t know, and a couple of days later, I got an angry email from my manager: “Did you know that this girl you intro’d me to was going to ask for a job?”

I felt terrible—and duped.

I came away from the situation annoyed with myself, but also frustrated with my contact: Did she know her friend was going to do this? Did she have bad intentions going in? She never gave me a straight answer when I approached her, but when she emailed me a month later with a similar request for a different friend, I sent the message straight to the trash bin.

How to Handle it Professionally

As a general rule, avoid asking for favors for other people at all costs. It puts your contacts in an awkward spot (“Hey, can you help my random friend with this big thing? Thanks!”), and it makes you look like you’re trying to take advantage of someone.

However, I know from experience that it can also be equally awkward if a friend is trying to leverage your connections. You don’t want to be rude, but you also don’t want to alienate your contacts in the process. The best response is to say you don’t feel comfortable asking. Or, if you do feel comfortable, offer to ask a very specific question on your friend’s behalf.

2. “Who Else Do You Know?”

This sounds like a no-brainer, but I’ve heard horror stories of people sitting down to coffee with someone for the first time, only to have that person essentially ask for bigger and better contacts point blank—yikes!

If you’ve just started a professional relationship with someone, you should never broach the topic of whom he or she knows or his or her ability to connect you. It’s awkward—and transparent.

How to Handle it Professionally

Once you build up a rapport with someone, use your interests and career goals as an opener for a conversation about introductions. For example, “I’m really interested in going into [Industry X], but don’t know many people” is much gentler than “Who do you know in [Industry X], and can you put us in touch ASAP?”

3. “Why Can’t You Help Me With This?”

Professional contacts and mentors aren’t miracle workers—they can’t clear the path for you every step of the way. For example, just because someone got you an introduction at a company doesn’t mean he can make sure you get the job you’re applying for—or even an interview.

While many people are happy to help, keep in mind that people have their own careers and reputations to look out for. In many situations, there’s probably only so much they can (and will) do.

How to Handle it Professionally

No matter what the situation, show gratitude and don’t be afraid to ask for pointers. But don’t keep pressing someone to help you over and over again.

For example: Did you want a contact to help get you an interview, but all he got you was the email address of someone in HR? Hey, that’s better than nothing. Thank that person for the assistance, and don’t be afraid to take a step further: Does your contact have any tips for reaching out? This could lead to more constructive conversations.

Successful professional relationships are all about symbiosis. No one wants to feel used. So always ask yourself: “What can I offer in exchange for help?” If you come up with a strong answer to that, you’ll most likely build much stronger relationships.

Photo of man with hand over this mouth courtesy of Shutterstock.