Consider beginning your introductory questions with something deliberately non-work-related and trusting that the context of the meeting will eventually steer the conversation back to work-related topics. Toward that end, here’s a few questions you could start with that will leave you more likely to find multiple commonalties and turn your new contacts into a multiplex tie — and maybe even a friend:
What excites you right now? This is a question that has a wide range of possible answers. It gives others the ability to give with a work-related answer, or talk about their kids, or their new boat, or basically anything that excites them.
What are you looking forward to? This question works for the same reason, but is more forward-looking than backward-looking, allowing others to choose from a bigger set of possible answers.
Where did you grow up? This question dives into others’ backgrounds (but in a much less assertive and loaded way than “Where are you from?”) and allows them to answer with simple details from childhood or to engage in their story of how they got to where they are right now and what they’re doing.
What do you do for fun? This question steers the conversation away from work, unless of course they are lucky enough to do for work what they’d be doing for fun anyway. Even then, it’s understood as a non-work question and the most likely answers will probably establish non-work ties.
Who is your favorite superhero? This might seem random, but it’s one of my favorites. Occasionally, asking this question has led me to bond over the shared love of a character, but more often you’ll find a shared connection or two in the reason for why the other person chose that particular character…or why they’re not really into superheroes.
Is there a charitable cause you support? Another big, open-ended question (assuming they support at least one charitable cause). It’s important to define support as broader than financial donations, as support might be in the form of volunteering or just working to raise awareness. You’re also really likely to either find shared ground or find out about a cause you didn’t know about.
What’s the most important thing I should know about you? This one is effective for similar reasons as many of the above, plus it gives the broadest possible range from which they can choose. It can come off as a little forthright, so when to use it depends on a lot of contextual clues.
Regardless of which question you choose, the important thing is to ask a question open-ended enough to allow others to select non-work answers if they choose. Doing so will increase the chances that you didn’t just turn a stranger into a new contact on your phone, but that you actually made a new friend.