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Network Your Peers to Open Doors

“Network Your Peers to Open Doors”

Other entrepreneurs offer a wealth of information. To learn, first listen. To get answers, ask questions.

Entrepreneurs are rarely bashful. They usually love to talk about their business — their triumphs, challenges or goals.

That’s good news if you want to expand your network of business owners. They’ll open up to you — if you let them.

Contrary to popular opinion, master networkers don’t hog center stage, says Andrea Nierenberg, principal of The Nierenberg Group, a New York-based consulting firm. Rather, they can pull the conversational strings by listening carefully and posing smart questions.

When you meet another entrepreneur for the first time, arouse your curiosity. Resist the urge to talk about yourself and your business; instead, dig for information so that you can learn something.

Prepare to hear more than you bargained for. With little prompting, many entrepreneurs will rave about their company’s great products or recent growth.

"Don’t let yourself think ‘This person is bragging,’" says Nierenberg. "Instead, think ‘I will learn from this person.’ That way, any dislike of the speaker won’t interfere with your willingness to listen."

A sure-fire way to build rapport with an entrepreneur is to mention another firm and ask, "Are they your competition?" This usually triggers a lively, informative dialogue, because the speaker will try to differentiate his or her company from the others.

More Networking Know-how

  • Cut the neediness. "Even if you’re on your last dollar, act as if everything’s great," says Nierenberg. "Talk from strength, not from need." For example, describe a downturn in business by saying, "I’d like to grow faster," rather than, "I really need clients." Don’t complain too much about setbacks.
  • Link past and present. If you meet someone you’ve spoken with before, recall what was discussed previously. Then follow up. Use phrases such as, "The last time we talked, you told me…" or "You had mentioned to me that you were about to…" Then ask, "How’s that going?"
  • Replace contradictions with questions. "If you say, ‘That’s totally wrong,’ you’ll put people on the defensive," says Nierenberg. "Instead, challenge them gently with a question such as ‘Really? How did you arrive at that?’" If you’re still unconvinced or you want to correct misinformation that you hear, be sure to state your source.

    Example: "I read in The Wall Street Journal that…"

  • Take notes. Nierenberg always travels with her "small-talk notebook." She’ll jot down names, dates and key facts soon after talking with someone so she doesn’t forget them.

    "Sometimes I’ll pull out my notebook in front of someone and say, ‘I want to write this down,’" Nierenberg says. "This shows I treat what they say seriously," she adds.

Lesson: Before you can begin to learn, you must refine your listening skills. Your peers — other emerging-growth entrepreneurs — have a wealth of information to offer, if you’ll let them.

Writer: Morey Stettner