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A recurring theme in many of these articles is the critical importance of conversation skills. As leaders, we engage our partners, employees, and opponents in business one conversation at a time. This is how a leader’s success is built.

The book, Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott, is one of my favorites. Susan (a personal friend!) believes the only way to truly connect with someone is to have a real conversation with him or her. Genuine connections all begin with conversation.

But What Happens Under Pressure?

The sad truth is, with many demands on our time, leaders do not always get down to business under ideal circumstances. We have to be ready to perform at a moment’s notice, sometimes under less-than-idea circumstances.

Imagine, for instance, a travelling executive, arriving at an industry conference after a week of travel. She’s weary, running on little more than airport dinners and adrenaline. However, she doesn’t want to miss the chance to connect. Unfortunately, this executive isn’t prepared.

At the networking event, her performance reflects her burnout. She is insular; conversations stay on the surface, and she can’t figure out how to delve deeply and engage. She meets prospective clients and partners, but never feels any chemistry.

In these situations, leaders must ask themselves: “Who is not connecting with whom?” Good conversation means getting real with people. It also means that we have to get vulnerable and expose those areas where we don’t always have all the answers. And we have to share.

If you take the time to learn proven conversation skills, you’re more likely to capitalize on opportunities in high-pressure situations, even when you’re not at your best.

Five Foolproof Questions

The best way to begin relationship-building conversations is with a question. If we really want to get to know someone, it is a good idea to have a number of questions ready to ask, and time to listen actively to the answers. Had our weary executive been armed with this knowledge, she might have found greater success.

Vistage speaker Boaz Rauschwerger has identified five basic but insightful questions that can engage complete strangers more than you might imagine. The questions are:

  1. Where are you from, originally?

  2. If no, what brought you here? If yes, have you lived here all your life?

  3. Do you have a family?

  4. What do you do?

  5. What did you want to be when you grew up?

Why are these questions (and this question strategy in general) so effective? More often than not, a person’s favorite subject is himself or herself.

Active listening is a critical component of this process. You’ll discovery the entry points that interest you and pertain to your experiences as well, and allow you to use that conversation to establish your common ground. This can be a significant starting point for a future business relationship.

Don’t Settle For What You Know

Arm yourself, and your executive team, with a framework for beginning meaningful conversations. Make an effort to master this art, especially in those situations you perceive as presenting a challenge, or when you think you “lack chemistry” with another person. We often learn that after having just a few conversations with one another, there’s much more shared ground to explore than originally thought, and we uncover great new resources we didn’t expect to find.