When you want to build a relationship with someone, be curious about them. Focus the conversation on them. Ask them questions. Shine a friendly spotlight their way. Then, share some of your related experiences and ideas without dominating the discussion – and watch the relationship blossom.

What Not To Do to Build a Relationship

There I was at the networking event, clutching my glass of iced tea, desperately looking for an escape. I was trapped in a conversation with a woman who just couldn’t stop talking – and it was all about her. Her work. Her interests. Her accomplishments.

My exasperation grew as she went on and on, despite my obvious nonverbal signals that I wanted to end our conversation. Finally, I interrupted her monologue with an excuse that I needed to refill my glass. Sighing with relief as I walked away, I made a mental note to dodge her if I ever came across her again.

Everything about our interaction conveyed that she couldn’t care less about me. She was at that event to tell anyone who would listen that she was the greatest. While that strategy may sometimes work in landing a client, this “hard sell” left me completely cold. Rather than convincing me that I want to build a relationship with her, I’ll avoid her any time we’re in the same room.

We’ve all had encounters like this. The other person dominates the discussion, continually steering the conversation back to them. Whether from nerves, a misguided understanding about how to network, or a severe case of narcissism, these lopsided conversations try the patience of even the most laidback folks. And, the terrible impression these encounters make can be really tough to bounce back from.

So, if talking almost exclusively about ourselves won’t help us build relationships, then what should we do?

Be Open and Curious

In their book “Emotional Intelligence 2.0,” Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves suggest that we aim to be both open and curious with others.

Being open means sharing details about ourselves – bits of our history, our likes and dislikes, our interests. For some of us, this can be challenging, especially in a business setting. We might be a private person and don’t necessarily see the relevance of our feelings and personal life to our professional relationships. Or maybe we’ve been taught that it’s impolite to talk about ourselves, especially if we might be perceived as “selling” ourselves.

Being open doesn’t mean we need to share our deepest secrets or entire life story with others, especially in a professional or “we’ve just met” context. Giving others glimpses into who we are and the experiences that have shaped us, though, allows people to get to know, like, and trust us. And that’s key to building lasting, meaningful relationships – even in a professional context.

Being willing to be open is one half of the relationship-building equation. The other half is being curious about those we meet.

When we have a genuine desire to learn more about other people, that curiosity makes them feel seen, heard, and respected. They, in turn, will see us as generous and likable.

For some of us, finding that sense of curiosity doesn’t come easily. We’re instinctively oriented toward our own needs. We might love being the center of attention or have a difficult time reading people’s signals that they’ve heard enough about us. Our personal style, professional status, or place of privilege might create conversational and relationship-building blind spots.

Finding the Balance

Striking a balance between being open and being curious isn’t easy. We are, at heart, fairly self-centered creatures. The “what’s in it for me” principle naturally skews us toward focusing on ourselves. Some of us – like the woman I encountered at the networking event – allow that instinct to run roughshod over our conversations. And, our relationships suffer for it. But when we share the spotlight in a generous, friendly way with the people in our orbit, relationship magic can happen.