When you engage, you are not starting a conversation, you are joining one

A few weeks ago, I offered my definition of engagement, which consisted of four steps:

Engagement = Prompting, listening, mirroring and acting in answer to what is heard

That’s an abstraction, meant to help you do an internal check on whether you are engaging effectively and to guide planning of engagements. But there’s one thing that is absolutely crucial to understand: When you engage, you are not starting the conversation, you are joining it.

When you prompt the customer or constituent, you are dipping your foot in the flowing waters of their stream. You don’t know the stream’s source, and you can’t know where it will go, which is why it is so important for you to listen and to get the engagement right.

Whether you are a marketer, a government agency, politician, brand ambassador, or citizen, the conversation you are joining is a mixture of the personal and the official, and that might make you uncomfortable. People will talk about their work, but also their children, pets, favorite foods, and political causes. But, think about it: these are the things people talk about at the kitchen table and the water cooler, the barber shop, street corner and stoop. Our conversations have always blended stories from our personal lives and our work, our private selves and our official personae. What is new is that social media are making these conversations visible.

So you have to be respectful. It may feel creepy at times to be monitoring conversations that were formerly private. We’ll all have to adjust our ears and our lips as we come to understand this new public place we are in. When you to engage with constituents, clients, or customers, you don’t want to barge in with a bullhorn, or peek over the hedges like a paparazzi.

When you are able to see yourself as a joiner of conversations, you can adjust your posture: You are not at the center. You are not the source. You are not the owner of the conversation. You need to listen more than you speak. How do you think this new situation changes “outreach”? How does it alter your plans for building awareness? If you are used to mostly using outbound marketing tools, how do you reorient your budget for the new world of inbound marketing? Knowledge is a dangerous thing because it tends to produce more questions than answers.

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5 Responses to When you engage, you are not starting a conversation, you are joining one
  1. BoniferNo Gravatar
    March 16, 2010 | 3:21 pm

    Love the post. Hence the need to understand and own improvisation skills, which are practical tactics for turning your excellent abstractions of engagement into action. "Yes-and" is the basic building block for this, and there are a thousand others. "Follow the follower" is another that relates to your idea of joining vs. owning the conversation…

    Thanks for your insights, John.

    • johnmccroryNo Gravatar
      March 16, 2010 | 4:33 pm

      Thanks, Mike. I'm really fascinated by the ways different improvisation techniques play with or against each other to create a converging narrative or a diverging one. There is much to learn there!

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