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What are the rules of conversational engagement?

Conversations go better when you understand the rules and how to react in certain situations. Here are 10 such rules to think about.

7 min read


What are the rules of conversational engagement?

Unsplash photo/SmartBrief illustration

Not long ago, I was watching the movie “Hunter Killer,” starring Gerard Butler. It is the story of a submarine commander who is tasked with rescuing the Russian president who has been taken captive by a rogue minister of defense.

At a point in the movie, it is obvious that the Russians had discovered the US sub, and Butler must decide if he will fire his nuclear missiles on the Russians before they fire on him. In a tense moment, he states that the rules of engagement demand that he allow the enemy to fire first before he returns fire to defend himself.

Although our conversations are not nearly as intense as a nuclear encounter, there are some rules that if practiced, will greatly improve the effectiveness of your conversational engagement.

There are obviously more rules than those listed below, but here are 10 rules of engagement that will help improve the quality of your interactions and conversations with others. 

1. The rule of vision

If you don’t have a vision that guides what you or your team is trying to create, then you could expect that there will be as many different visions as there are people. You need to create a vision that resonates with people and helps them understand how what they do contributes to the accomplishment of that vision.

2. The rule of expectation

If your expectations of others are clear to you, then you increase the likelihood that they will be clear to others. If folks are not performing up to expectations, assess your expectations and whether you have accurately communicated them to others.

When we don’t get what we want, we must first look at ourselves and how we delivered our message. Then we can explore where a potential lack of understanding originated with others and clarify as needed.

3. The rule of specific feedback

Closely aligned with the rule of expectations is the rule of specific feedback. People want feedback, whether it be constructive feedback or positive feedback. A lack of feedback creates doubt in the minds of others, and wastes time and emotion, as people try to determine whether they are doing a good job. Leave no doubt: Provide feedback that is specific, clear and data-based. Providing feedback without specific examples will lead to frustration and confusion, and nothing will change. 

4. The rule of reflection

What you get may be what you are giving. When speaking with someone, if you notice that they are starting to become emotional and their nonverbal behavior becomes exaggerated or emphatic, check yourself.

People will mirror what they are experiencing, so if you are becoming irritated, loud or forceful, then the person to whom you are speaking will usually reflect that back to you. Remaining calm and in control of yourself and your delivery ensures that you will receive more of what you project to the other person.

5. The rule of discovery

Sometimes when I am teaching a REAL Talk class, I am asked, “Of all that you have taught us, what is the one skill that is absolutely essential?” To which I respond, “Having a spirit of discovery.”

Discovery includes being curious and open to learning when dealing with others. That means you will approach people with an open mind. You will ask questions and listen to their responses. You will recognize and suspend your thinking and judgments – attempting to learn about and understand the person to whom you are speaking.

We are often too quick to form judgments about people  without any substantiating data, and we tend to tell, rather than discover by asking questions. Having the spirit of discovery goes a long way in creating the rapport that is necessary to improve your relationships.

6. The rule of connectivity

Connecting with others is about being present and truly listening to what they have to say. When you are present with a person, notice all the messages they are sending. Pay attention to their tone of voice, the kinds of words they use and what kinds of nonverbal behavior they display. All of these actions represent a message. The challenge is that most people are not very good at deciphering these messages.

One easy way to do this is to notice the behavior and then ask what it means. For example, you might say something like, “I noticed that you didn’t respond to my question [A behavior]. Can you help me understand why?” Notice I am simply sharing what I am observing and then asking for the meaning of that behavior.

Another way to increase connection is by summarizing in your own words what a person has said and then asking a question. For example, you might say, “If I understand correctly, when you said you wanted your report by the end of the week, you meant by the end of the day on Thursday. Is that correct?”

Notice you are demonstrating your understanding and asking for confirmation. This communicates that you are interested in what they are saying and that you care enough to make sure that you got it right.

7. The rule of appreciation

Appreciation happens far too infrequently, and yet, it takes so little to notice what people are doing, to recognize their efforts out loud and to thank them for their actions. Everyone wants to be noticed and appreciated for the work that they do. Taking the time to do that reinforces their performance and communicates gratitude for their efforts.

8. The rule of reciprocity

Reciprocity is the exchange of something for the mutual benefit of both parties. Currently there is a lot of emphasis on social justice, equity and fairness. Understanding that people expect to be treated equitably requires that if we treat others such, then they will reciprocate accordingly.

Sometimes we may act in a way that may offend others, even though we don’t intend to do so. When a person has the courage to share their feelings about being offended, we should readily apologize, learn from our mistake, and encourage others to do the same.   

9. The rule of consistency

Early in my career, I had a manager who was General Patton one day and Jimmy Stewart the next. We never knew which boss was going to show up for work on any given day. Being new to a corporate environment and this kind of behavior was very unsettling for all of us working with him. Being consistent in your mood and demeanor with everyone takes the pressure off of people, and it keeps them from feeling that self-preservation will be required on any given day.

10. The rule of respect

Everyone expects to be treated with dignity and respect both in word and deed. This means that we speak in a respectful way. It means that we support one another and don’t throw each other under the bus. It means that we keep our word and commitments to one another. It means that if we have problem with someone, we talk to that person rather than talking about them behind their backs. Disrespect is often at the root of what may frustrate us when dealing with others. Remember that respect leads to trust over time, and that trust leads to loyalty and commitment.

Our interactions and behaviors toward others not only impact others’ individual performance, but also form the foundation for the quality of our relationships. Taking a moment to consider your behavior will help improve your relationships, grow respect and increase your awareness so you can make any needed changes and improve the quality of your results.


John R. Stoker is the author of “Overcoming Fake Talk” and the president of DialogueWORKS, Inc. His organization helps clients and their teams improve leadership engagement in order to achieve superior results. He is an expert in the fields of leadership, change, dialogue, critical thinking, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence, and has worked and spoken to such companies as Cox Communications, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell and AbbVie. Connect with him on FacebookLinkedIn, or Twitter.

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