Coffee meetings can be some of the best excuses to get out of the office, or they can be some of the most productive items on your schedule.  Hopefully, if you're reading this, your weekly coffee chats are both.

Every time I take a meeting--and I only take 250 coffee meetings a year--I try to go in with a strong sense of what I want to accomplish. If you don't have an intended outcome, the conversation could twist and turn into a million different directions.

This is fine, but always remember to stay on point, and discuss what you need to get across. Or, if you are the one whose time is being requested--shut up and listen. Don't talk for 20 minutes about nonsense; break the ice and move on to your colleague's questions.

Ask yourself: "What am I getting, and what am I giving?"

The first part is fairly simple.

We all know what it's like to sit across from someone and make a big ask. Sometimes, you feel a little nervous. You rehearse your pitch in the bathroom in between cappuccinos and then, with only 10 minutes left, you have to go for it.

Coffee meetings are a great way to establish camaraderie. Maybe not the kind you share after a round of cocktails, but it definitely is the right environment for an off-the-cuff, no-pressure conversation. There should be a feeling of quid pro quo.  

Establish what you are there to get, and get that out of the way. Once that's over, you can focus on the other person's needs.  

This is where you need to really listen to their thoughts, and tune in to what they are saying nonverbally. Usually, if you ask about a new project, you can see nervous hands wringing or a smile begin to form. These are signs you should use to know what questions to ask.

For example, if your friend is nervous about something, maybe you should avoid that topic directly. The more you can pinpoint where you can offer advice, the easier it will be to make an impact.  

The other thing that you need to be cognizant of is that this is your chance to provide perspective on their situation. You aren't meeting in their office, so everyone's guard is down. It can also be the right time to bring up something that you've been working on for a while, but avoid half-baked ideas as much as possible.

No matter what, it's important that at the end of the meeting you ask these five words:

"How can I help you?"

In my experience, you need to make good on any promises you make. It always looks much worse if you don't follow up on your promises than if you don't offer to help at all.  

Don't just go through the motions, either--actually provide value. You never know where that connection could lead, or how it could benefit you in the future. It may even help you immediately, which makes it well worth the additional effort.

Why should you offer to help?

It's always important to make connections, provide advice, and give feedback...because the next time you need help, the people you've helped will be willing to step up and lend a hand.  

Having people who are ready and willing to come to your aid is one of the most important safety nets you can build. 

If you get fired suddenly, having people in your corner is always good. However, you can't just take; you also have to give in order to build rapport and generate trust.

Who knows? Asking how you can help may even get you a free coffee next time. But my hunch is that it will lead you to a lot more value in the future.  

Published on: May 29, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.