3 Conversational Levels for Leaders

Leaders commonly rely on two types of conversations: telling and selling.

When telling, leaders try to clearly specify exactly what employees need to do (Level I). When selling, a leader tries to persuade them with reasons for doing it (Level II). Unfortunately, some unsure leaders resort to yelling or repeating themselves, and then wonder why they never get the results they want.

Employees may understand “what” to do and even “why” they should do it. But they’ll never fully engage unless they’re part of meaningful conversations that encourage connection, sharing, and discovery (Level III).

When we respect others’ worldviews, especially when they differ from our own, we create a space for better conversations and encourage new ideas to emerge.

The following table offers a graphic representation of Judith E. Glaser’s identified conversation levels:

LEVEL I – Transactional

How we exchange data and information

LEVEL II – Positional

How we work with power and influence

LEVEL III – Transformational

How we co-create the future for mutual success

  • Tell
  • Advocate
  • Share
  • Ask
  • Inquire
  • Discover
  • Need to protect
  • Buildconsensus
  • Contract
  • Resistance
  • Compromise
  • Join
  • Low trust
  • Wait and see
  • Partner
  • Conditional trust
  • High Trust


Conversation as a Power Dance

Too often, we get stuck in Level II conversations because we’re addicted to being right. We fail to realize the negative impact this has on others. We may start out with an exchange of ideas, but we then become trapped in a power dance, with each side trying to “lead.”

It can be hard to let go of the need to win, but it’s critical to take this step to avoid interactions that are merely a contest of wills.

Only when we participate in Level III conversations can we transform ourselves and our conversational partners by sharing thoughts, ideas, and belief systems. When we’re mindful of our intentions and notice the impact our words have on others, we begin to live in Level III. We realize that:

  • We shape the meanings our words have on others.
  • We need to validate our words’ true meanings.
  • Breakdowns occur when others interpret our words in unanticipated ways.
  • Breakdowns occur when we try to persuade others that our meanings are the right ones.
  • Breakthroughs occur when we take time to share and discover.
  • Breakthroughs occur when we co-create and partner to create a shared reality.

In the work I do coaching, people often get confused when their messages are misinterpreted. They think they are being clear, but they fail to check or validate what’s been understood, and so they leave themselves and others wide open for misunderstandings and surprises.

How can you avoid this? How can you engage in Level III conversations? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this — leave me a comment on LinkedIn.