Engaging in Dialogue

Engaging in a meaningful dialogue with another person or group of people requires self-awareness, the ability to understand others, and crafting the right communication style.

All human beings share common patterns in how they communicate and make decisions. By developing a deeper understanding of the style and motivations of each person, you can engage with them more effectively.

The key to success is stepping out from your own thoughts, preferences, and emotions and stepping into another person’s point-of-view. This requires an understanding of personality styles, deeper meanings of words they communicate, and the ability to fine-tune your message based on the audience.

It is important to develop a mental model of how effective engagement would look like. The real results will only come when these mental models are practiced again and again. Through constant practice, you will tend to use these techniques naturally.

Ask questions and listen

The ability to ask the right questions and listen is the heart of good communication. “The person who asks the questions controls the conversation”. By asking questions, you can steer the conversation in a particular direction and uncover the deeper motivations of the other person. 

Ancient philosopher Socrates is famous for his style of probing questions to uncover deeper meanings of life. See six types of questions Socrates used to ask.

Questioning can only be effective if you are paying attention and listening to the answers intently. This provides a way to understand the other person as well as craft follow-up questions that provide additional details.

It is better to start with open-ended questions and then drill down to details based on the answers. Once you have the answer it is always good to paraphrase it to make sure that there was no miscommunication.

You also need to have enough knowledge about the behavioral patterns of humans to glean insights from other persons’ answers.

Understand the direction of motivation

In a given context, people are generally motivated towards certain targets/goals they desire, or away from problems/difficulties. The same person can use different directions depending on the specific circumstance.

To identify the direction of motivation, you need to listen to the choice of words they use. If you listen to the Trump-Clinton debate, Trump was employing the “away-from” style to stand out while Hillary was using “towards” direction to reiterate the status quo.

When you hear words such as “gain market share”, “achieve top fitness”, “increase speed”, the person is clearly talking in terms of “towards direction”. 

The phrases like “lose weight”, “cut costs”, “remove barriers” signal “away-from” direction.

Why is it important to understand this difference? You cannot use the same communication style to appeal to both types of directions. For “towards direction”, you may consider using expressions like “winning, achievement, greater goal, bigger vision, etc. 

Use expressions like “eliminate, reduce cost, sort out” to influence an “away-from” person.

Proactive/Reactive motivations

Proactive people don’t wait for direction or ask for permissions. They take initiative and do things their own since they are focused on achieving results and moving the needle forward.

Reactive people often wait for directions and give a lot of importance to making the right moves. They analyze situations deeply before taking the plunge. 

The buying patterns of these groups vary greatly – proactive people tend to do impulse buys whereas reactive people like to take their own time.

It is not hard to detect pro-active people since they give out signals of moving fast and getting things done. 

The proactive/reactive motivation levels are generally part of an individual’s personality but it could also change based on the context. It is important to consider them for each specific instance that you are dealing with.

You need to change your words appropriately to influence these orientations.  Use expressions such as “get stuff done”, “make it happen”, “supercharge the initiative” etc to influence pro-active people.

For reactive people, the key is using words that imply “consideration”.  Give them a sense of contemplation by suggesting “now that we have carefully looked at all aspects of the proposal, can we move forward..”.


Some people are motivated by big ideas and concepts(generalists). They like to think in abstract terms and are more focused on how systems work. There are others who like to delve into the details (detail-oriented).  They don’t feel comfortable unless all the details are figured out. 

You can identify both categories by listening to their words. Generalists tend to skip details and talk about the “big picture” and “making an impact”. Detail-oriented people talk in terms of numbers, steps, and technical problems.

To influence generalists, give them overviews, and executive summaries. For detail-oriented, use examples, and sequences.

Understand the learning style

The VAK (Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic) learning styles model classifies the most common ways people learn. According to this model, most of us prefer to learn in one of three ways:

  • Visual: A visually-dominant learner absorbs information when it is presented in pictures and diagrams.
  • Auditory: An auditory-dominant learner prefers learning by listening to lectures, and discussions. They respond best to sounds.
  • Kinesthetic: A kinesthetic-dominant learner prefers learns by actually doing things. They like the “hands-on” approach.

You can gauge the learning style of a person by listening to the words and expressions they choose. A visual person may use words such as “I see”, “can you draw”. An auditory person may use “I hear you”, “it rings a bell” etc. A kinesthetic person usually uses phrases that denote action such as “I don’t’ get handle..”, or “it boils down to”.

Understanding the learning style from the words that a person uses may not be accurate all the time but it is a good starting point to create a hypothesis on a person’s learning style.

In order to create rapport and influence the other person, try to match your message with the learning style. If you are trying to influence a group, use a mix of phrases that will appeal to all three learning styles.

Hot buttons

Uncovering the deeper motivations is a sure-fire way to influence other people. This requires asking probing questions (think Socrates again) that peals motivations in layers.  Use a formula to ask questions to uncover the hot button. As an example, the VP of R&D wants to cut the development cost. You can start with the following questions:

  • What is important to you about cutting the development cost?
    • Well, it will help me allocate resources in the growth areas.
  • That’s great! What do you like to achieve by investing in the growth areas?
    • I am hoping to make my department more relevant to the entire organization
  • Awesome! What is important to you about making the dept relevant?
    • I’m definitely ambitious about my career goals

It shows how the discussion goes from “cutting development costs” to achieving “career progress”.


In a nutshell, the key to influence is practicing the advice of Stephen Covey. “Seek to understand before being understood”. 

We can use many of the above techniques to understand the other person. Pay particular attention to carefully reading emails, analyzing interactions, and body language. Once you create a pattern and predictable model of the real motivations of the other person, craft a matching messaging style. This is the beginning of creating an engaging dialogue and influence.

Thanks Alen Mayer (www.alenmayer.com) for input and examples

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.