When Talking Isn’t Enough: How To Hold An Engaging Conversation

They call him the "Watercooler"

What would you say if I told you to quit talking to me? In fact, I want you to quit talking to everyone. What I want instead is for you to engage with others. Engagement occurs on a different level than talking to or talking at someone. When we engage, we transform our experience of ourselves and our experience of others. Let’s look at three levels of conversation and discover what it means to be engaged.

3 Levels Of Conversation

Level 1: Level 1 conversations are about exchanging stories. I tell you about my day or week and you respond with your own story that complements, outdoes or reminds you of mine. Sometimes the intent is to validate you and your experience, as in, “Oh my gosh! The same thing happened to me!” Other times we go for the attention grab: “Oh, that’s nothing! Listen to this.” While rich in information sharing and often energizing, Level 1 conversations don’t require a high level of emotional engagement.

Level 2: Level 2 conversations circle around common interests or beliefs. We hash out the latest political scandals or vent about work. In these conversations, each party seeks commonality and support of their worldview. For this reason, Level 2 conversation frequently morph into advice-giving sessions. However, engagement begins as we tap into our core interests and beliefs in these conversations.

Level 3: Here’s where the real work gets done. In level 3 conversations, we are discovering—and appreciating—the uniqueness of the individual. These conversations have more depth, more vulnerability and require deep listening for thoughtful replies. It’s not enough to share a story, though a story might be exactly what is needed to communicate understanding. It’s not enough to discover common interests or beliefs, though we likely will. Instead, we go further and make a commitment to listen and create a safe environment for others to share who they really are, rather then the person we want them to be.

Not every conversation needs to be a Level 3. In fact, that would be exhausting! A quick round of stories at the water cooler or a lunch date to gripe about the boss is fine and often all that’s needed. But look for opportunities to hold Level 3 conversations. It may be with someone you’re mentoring, with a vendor or client with whom you seek to establish a relationship or with a colleague you feel has ideas and opinions—even if they differ from yours—worth exploring at a deeper level.

These conversations take work. It’s hard to let go of judgments or stop our minds from racing to what our reply is going to be and instead be fully in the moment and listening to the person in front of us. In the long term, however, Level 3 conversations are where the deepest of friendships and business relationships take place and grow.