The Art of Engagement

One of the biggest challenges in the world today is ‘engagement’ — Whether it is engaging audiences in a presentation, engaging kids at home, engaging colleagues at a brainstorming session in office, engaging employees, engaging citizens to participate in governance and so on and so forth.

What is Engagement? If we google it, this is what we get


Before we get into the ‘how’ of creating engagement, we need to understand the ‘why’ of engagement and ‘why’ it is hard. Lack of engagement creates all kinds of problems between companies and consumers, husbands and wives, parents and children, employers and employees, governments and citizens.

I would like to use the videos below from the interviews of Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, J Jayalalitha to show what ‘disengages’ people and what ‘engages’ people.The intention is not to compare the two interviewers but rather what drives engagement.

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If you watched this interview, there is a complete ‘disconnect’ between the interviewer,Karan Thapar and Jayalalitha. In the first few mins, she says ‘It is my mistake that I agreed to do the interview’. She was angry throughout and she gives plain answers for each of the so called ‘tough’ questions. One can say that the interviewer ‘grilled’ the CM but what purpose did it serve other than the fact the interviewer could proudly say that he asked tough questions to the CM. There is a clear lack of engagement. — The interviewer’s tactics may work with few leaders, who keeps emotions away in interviews but not with every person.

I am going to show another video of the same Chief Minister with another interview, Simi Garewell.

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In this interview(I strongly recommend watching this full interview in youtube), the Chief Minister talks about her childhood crush on Nari Contractor and Shammi Kapoor, talks about her childhood memories and even sings her favourite song (09:53 — 10:20). Jayalalitha is considered to be one of the most difficult persons to interview but this interview shattered all myths. It is not about the other person but rather about the person who needs the engagement. Towards the end of the interview, Jayalalitha openly acknowledged and praised the interviewer who was able to elicit responses from her which nobody else was able to do before. What worked here that didnt work in the interview before? One can say that the objective of both the interviews are different, which is true but there is an ‘engagement’ that was clearly missing in the first interview. It is not about the other person. It is about us. We are the ones who are responsible for creating the engagement.

Analyzing this interview and similar interviews plus reflecting on my professional experience as well as personal experiences including raising two beautiful kids, I believe that trust is the biggest factor in creating engagement and there are three factors that generates trust that leads to engagement — Acknowledgement, Safe Space and Nudge.

Acknowledgement: One of the most important factors that causes trust that leads people to engage is acknowledgement. Every person does things for a good intention but the outcome of their action is perceived as right or wrong. A good first step in a discussion is to ‘acknowledge’ the other person’s point of view before making any judgment or interpretation. In this interview, Simi acknowledges JJ several times in the initial stages ‘It must have been painful’ ‘I am sure it was difficult’ which lets the other person to share more and generate trust in the process.

People need acknowledgement all the time.Acknowledgement conveys to the other person that you are willing to step into their shoes and see the world from their point of view. As a parent, I encounter this situation with my kids on a daily basis.When my kids fall down and cry of pain, I used to say ‘It is okay. You will be fine’ but for kids it is not okay. I learnt to say ‘I am sure it must be paining a lot. Even when I was a kid, I had experienced this kind of a pain. What do you think we should do?’. The kids now say ‘It is okay Appa. It will be fine’. Kids need acknowledgement and the moment we acknowledge without judgment, one can notice a sudden change in their stand. — even small physical gestures like kneeling down to get the eyesight at the same level as the kids is a physical acknowledgement and demonstration of interest in hearing what they have to say. Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen is a master of appreciation — His seminal work Innovator’s solution appreciates that managers do everything right and still end up in the wrong side. Appreciation combined with acknowledgement is a powerful tool to generate trust.

Safe Space: Once we appreciate and acknowledge without any pretence, a huge amount of trust will be generated. With the trust generated, one may be able to create safe spaces for the other person to start moving from their position. In the Simi interview, she beautifully creates a safe space for JJ to share stories like her childhood crush with Nari Contractor and Shammi kapoor. Anyone who is following the Tamil Nadu CM will know how much of a tough cookie she is and it is so refreshing to see her open up because she felt that the interviewer has created a ‘safe space’ for her to share in such a pleasant and friendly manner.

Safe Spaces can also be created with the right rules and norms coupled with vulnerability. In my office, as part of the INSEAD training, we have created peer coaching groups for our Fellows. Among all the groups, our group was the most successful because each one of our group members were making ourselves vulnerable by sharing some very personal stories. This created a safe space and today, each one of us share any kind of personal challenges and difficulties with ease.

Nudge: Once the safe space is created, it is time to ‘nudge’ people to change their positions. In the Simi interview, the highlight was when Simi makes JJ sing. She will ask Jaya for her list of favourite songs and as Jaya listed her favourites, she will ask Jaya whether Jaya can sing. After Jaya refuses twice, Simi will tell Jaya that she will sing with her which is a powerful nudge for Jaya to participate. Even after they start singing, Simi will lead Jaya to safe space where she could sing alone and then stop singing. It was so beautiful. I have read an example in the book ‘Nudge’ that there was a 30% increase in the number of people who visited a hospital for tetanus injections when they were given a map along with the information pamphlet as against just giving a pamphlet.

To sum up, if we really want to engage people, be it in professional or personal settings, we need to acknowledge to get into their shoes, create a safe space so that they can open up and create positive nudges to move them from their position with ease. Hope this idea resonates with you.

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