Do you really ‘engage’ people when you deal with them?
When a man and a woman commit themselves to a lifelong relationship of love and fidelity we describe them as ‘engaged’. When an army hurls its firepower against its opponents we say it has engaged the enemy. When someone is charming, perhaps with a winsome smile and the gift of the gab, we call them engaging. When we call a ‘phone line that is busy we say the other party is ‘engaged’. The word engage has one common theme in all these cases. It denotes real connection. What do we mean when we say that to handle others successfully we must engage them?
The definition of this sort of engagement that I like is ‘getting people to ask you the questions you want to answer’. Manipulative? Certainly, but we manipulate all the time. Not in the critical sense that word is used to mean dishonestly or falsely but in the sense that we promote our ideas, persuade others to our point of view and make a case for what we want to achieve. Manipulation is bad only when it is against the interests of the manipulated.
We have a friend who we have known for many years. Lovely fellow, generous to a fault, always there to help others – a true form of engagement – and fun to be with. He talks – and talks – and talks. It is amusing to listen to him but he is not ‘engaging’ with those he speaks to. He is talking at them. So his chatter, amusing as it is, never actually communicates what he wants to say, nor achieves what he needs to get done. He knows he does it but he cannot stop and think how to correct this habit of a lifetime. It probably costs him dearly.
The first rule of engagement is to know who you are engaging, even before you decide what to engage them about. Of course, if you are trying to clear a building that is on fire you won’t have time to assess the mood of the people you want to save. A hefty, belly-based shout of ‘fire’ is likely to be as effective as anything. Try using that in a restaurant to attract the waiter’s attention and you’ll end up with a bowl of soup in your lap. Look at it this way. If you are going to communicate with a small child you adopt what you think will be intelligible to them, not what is intelligible to you. If, on the other hand, you are going to hold a discussion with Stephen Hawking you will not treat him like a child.
We instinctively assess the superficial criteria for communicating with another – their language, their apparent intellect, their ability to physically hear and their receptiveness, as far as we can judge it. To engage properly we need to delve deeper than this, to imagine the mood they will probably be in, to work out what their biases are about the subject we want to engage them on. Telling Donald Trump it wouldn’t be kind to build a wall against the Mexicans is not likely to change his mind.
Learning how to ‘read’ people is a prerequisite to persuading them. It requires more than listening; it requires engaging. That means setting up a dialogue in which each party moves towards the other, feeling their way as they go, judging the pace of the other, adjusting their message – and their expectations. Rather like your first ever approach to a member of the opposite sex but without, perhaps, the physical bit.
When you understand the other person and they understand you, you are engaged.