3 Habits for Bolstering Engagement

Great things happen when we’re engaged

The three habits concern how we engage with others when real engagement is critical. They're habits that shape communicative interaction for purposes of gaining mutual understanding, all based on the belief that any other practical purposes we have in mind - alignment, conflict resolution, persuasion, or direction giving - benefit from openness to others, to their experience and views, which also engenders trust.  

The three habits are practiced ways of engaging, which might be regarded as EQ skills for everyday life. They are: 1) attending; 2) attuning; and 3) reflecting. Used with sincerity, appropriateness, and effectiveness, they transform the moment from one that is driven by past or future concerns to one that operates in the here-and-now. 

Attending – a gestalt perspective

I characterize the habits as "practiced ways of engaging."[1] Attending in this sense involves deliberate focus of our attentional gaze, also an attitude free of preoccupations with past or future. We are attentionally positioned to notice how others are acting, as well as the emotional tone of their verbal and nonverbal behaviors in the here-and-now. Attitudinally, we are curious and inclined to suspend judgement. We are noticing any regressive or progressive pulls that take us away from the dynamics and meaning of what we and others are experiencing right now as we discuss the matters at hand. 

It’s not that practical imperatives are devalued or that objectives must be dismissed. It’s just that these aims may be allowed to recede into the background, in order to shift our attentional and attitudinal stance to focus on the quality of engagement as needed. We may anticipate needs to “check in” on how others are feeling before the meeting begins(motivation, commitment, concerns, etc.), or such needs may spontaneously surface and call for our intervention in the natural course the meeting. In either case, we shift our focus from the formal agenda in order to pull here-and-now issues into the foreground. 

This attentional discipline works from a “gestalt” perspective, a more global awareness of interpersonal process. It’s grounded in a recognition that interaction occurs in a social field. The explicit topical focus of our meeting, at least ostensibly, claims center stage, foreground, in this meeting[2] (social field). But, there are also non-focal thoughts and feelings that operate in the background, less consciously at first, which make claims on us and may impede or otherwise affect our engagement with what’s in the foreground. When we notice background themes “boiling,” they should be “foregrounded.”

Attuning – actively empathizing

Attentional discipline enables us to notice interpersonal dynamics, not merely as an indifferent observer, but as a concerned and caring partner. We attune ourselves to others as persons, as minded creatures, each with their own concerns and viewpoints who experience the interaction from their own situated subjective center in the social field. We notice all of this from an attitude of curiosity, also with an active, empathic interpretation of what it means to him or her in the holistic scheme of their life. 

When the quality of our presence and engagement are sincere, others can tell. Even if we're not fully accurate, our imperfect effort and intent to understand them resonates as genuine concern. It conveys at least an approximate attunement, along with our sincere interest in improving our attunement. We strike them as being in earnest. They notice that we've seen and heard the less explicitly expressed background themes, and respect them enough to welcome them into the foreground. They believe we do this for good reasons; not only for the sake of practical outcomes, but to ensure their inclusion. 

The contributions made by our attentional focus and our active empathic attunement reveal authentic motivations to engage in a real way. Most people will “pick up” on the tone of this attitudinal/behavioral style. However, if we want to make this shift in the quality of engagement more explicit, and validate for ourselves and others that it is a reliable basis for trust, joint commitment, and collaboration in all the discussion and actions to follow, something else, the third habit, is needed, i.e., reflection. 

Reflection – specifying and validating understanding

We use the word reflection here in a double sense. First, it is a kind of instrumental action or strategy for validating the impressions and interpretations formed in the attunement phase. But unlike other kinds of strategy, it is informed in this case by the live, unfolding experience of the meeting. Second, it does prompt the sort of thoughtful pause and consideration we usually associate with reflection as a mode of mental activity. It is a reflection on the interaction, making certain themes explicit. 

A concrete example of reflection might help: “You seem a bit hesitant, but for a reason. Perhaps something just doesn’t seem clear, feel settled or right about this plan.” While my attentional focus may have enabled me to notice the background theme of hesitance, and while I may have slowed my pace, signaling my concern to avoid rushing them or dismissing their concern, now I make my impressions, hypotheses, and interpretations explicit in order to test them. I've probably based my interpretations more on nonverbal dynamics than anything specific he or she might have articulated. 

But now my reflection of undiscussed background issues, which might have blocked collaboration on imperatives in the foreground, are made explicit and available for examination. They're recognized as important matters to understand and to resolve. As these issues are taken seriously, foregrounded, and made explicit, those who bore them are affirmed. They and their concerns matter. They thereby learn to trust their feelings as “data” that signal a need for reflection in the second sense. 


These habits for boosting engagement require the conscious cultivation of skills for attending and discerning, attuning and interpreting, and reflecting and validating what often lies in the background and what is too often neglected. We thereby restructure the field of interaction to permit engagement of a kind that places us on solid footing for any other kind of practical communicative purposes, such as influence, decision making, alignment checking, and problem solving. 

Perhaps you'll regard the communicative action represented by the attending-attuning-reflection discipline a “soft skill.” Just remember, it is often in virtue of just this softer kind of skill, and the attitudinal shift it invokes, that harder skills of influence and overt action achieve efficacy. It only through heart-felt engagement that we do our best work, especially when the going gets tough. There nothing soft about that!


[1] Practiced ways of engagement are cultivated. They don’t just happen without a deliberate, mindful effort. We cultivate things in this way when they are important to us, just as we do, for example, in our moral life. It’s easier to simply indulge our self-interest, but realizing our capacity for kindness is what makes us fully human. 

[2] I use “meeting” to cover any planned or ad hoc interaction in which two or more persons to connect, align, and coordinate their actions. Even as we may temporarily suspend an action bias to attend to the relational dynamics of engagement, the ultimate purpose in doing so is to then resume a more robust course of joint purposive action.