Engagement and the communication spectrum

The term “communication” embraces the range of human interaction. Being more precise about the type of communication we want to enhance, enables us to better evaluate the quality of our communication, and move the organisation forward with specific communication skills, such as engagement.

Communication is interaction. Messages are given and received verbally and non-verbally. When people ask for “more communication” what specifically do they mean? Such a request is very broad and wide-open to interpretation. Here is a model that I call the communication spectrum. It represents a range of communication flavours that we might encounter in our most intimate relationships, our families, communities and workplaces.

At the top of the spectrum in the green zone are appreciation and engagement. We want more of these for effective communication to foster the development of the important relationships in our lives. Talk is in the neutral range of the spectrum. It can range from the more positive manifestations such as dialogue, (inferring an exchange) through to monologue (inferring communication with a dominant party).

The red zone is where our communication can go wrong, and so often does. Debate is ok, but not when the contest is more important than the communication. Conflict can be very productive, but it also depletes us. And communication is really heading for the red zone when someone withdraws, seeing no point in further exchanges, or a lack of safety. Both physical and verbal abuse are communication, and neither serves any useful purpose.

This model provides an easy to understand tool to evaluate the quality of our communication. We can simply ask: Is this communication above, or below, the horizon? Or, how much of my time do I spend above the horizon? What would happen if I spent more time in engagement and appreciation?

Effective stakeholder engagement will happen in a workplace communication climate where engagement is valued, not just as a skill to use with external stakeholders, but as a predominant way of communicating. Appreciation is not ingratiation – where an underling curies favour in a transactional manner. It is more the result of experiencing empathy for others, being grateful for their contribution and gaining insights into their world. Thus appreciation is a skill that supports engagement.

So what is the quality of communication like in your key relationships? And, where it is needed, how can you move it above the horizon?

Note that the categories here are very broad. Others could be included. Do you see any major omissions?

Supporting an engagement ethos

The communication spectrum prompts us to ensure most of our communication is either engaging or appreciating. Here are a few tools to support engagement practices. Engagement infers establishing rapport and mutual understanding with others, supported by communication skills, such as active listening, that you are probably already familiar with. Click on the box below to see some tools for engagement including the shared meaning model, David Rock’s 5 levels of focus and Stephen Covey’s emotional bank account.

More on supporting an engagement ethos

Suzanne O’Rourke and Sandy Barnett’s shared meaning model

This simple and elegant model shows us that engagement happens when our understanding of an issue is consistent with the person we are communicating with. As engagement deepens, we can expect the overlapping  area of shared meaning to grow.

David Rock’s levels of focus

In his book Quiet Leadership, David Rock identifies 5 levels of focus as in the diagram here. As with the communication spectrum, it has a horizon, and we need to be mindful that staying beneath the horizon too long is not good for communication. How often do you encounter those who tend to spend too much time communicating detail, problems and drama? Being mindful of the level of focus helps us to refocus on vision. This should ensure your communication is more engaging, especially when the vision expressed is relevant and inspiring for both parties. The key here is mindfulness – being able to be engaged in the communication, while at the same time being aware of the communication dynamics. This is no easy task, but comes easier with practice.

The Glaser’s P.R.E.S. model

Peter and Susan Glaser teach a four-step model to facilitate communication. It is especially useful to enable a group of people to each identify and communicate something of importance to them – it enables lots of voices to be heard. Each participant gets a minute in total to make a point, support it with a reason, provide a brief example and quickly summarise. Try it in busy meetings, and to draw out the essence of someone’s thinking.

Stephen Covey’s emotional bank account



You may be aware of this idea from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Think of your communication as a transaction. Each time you communicate positively, you are making deposits in the other person’s emotional bank account. But when you criticise, or argue, you are making a withdrawl. This concepts illustrates how continued withdraws will soon “bankrupt” a relationship. The best way to prevent this is to make frequent deposits.

These concepts are simple but profound. Imagine how your workplace would change if there was solid intention and action to embed these engagement practices. If you think your communication has been aligned with these models, please leave a comment and let us know how it has made a difference.


Genuine and heartfelt appreciation is at the apex of communication. It facilitates our relationships, building enduring bonds. It’s a potent antidote for complacency and rejuvenates long-term workplace and personal relationships. Click on the “more on appreciation” box to learn more about positive psychology, appreciative enquiry and some great additional resources.

More on appreciation

Genuine and heartfelt appreciation is at the apex of communication. It facilitates our relationships, building enduring bonds. It’s a potent antidote for complacency and rejuvenates long-term workplace and personal relationships. The TV series “Undercover Boss” exemplifies appreciation. In a typical episode the “boss” – usually a CEO or owner engages in low-level jobs. They get to talk to a range of staff and use their engagement skills to establish rapport and get to know them on a personal level. The show finishes with the boss revealing their true identity and expressing profound and specific appreciation for the work these people have done, and, more importantly, who they are. I have seen both the U.K. and U.S. versions of the show and notice, that across diverse cultures, the responses are the same. The impact of appreciation and acknowledgement on the employees appears profound. Universal human emotions are common currency across the diverse cultures represented. And the experience invariably has a profound impact on the boss. Of course these programmes are edited for impact and are formulaic, but please suspend any cynicism you may have and check out this extract from a show. (apologies for the ad. at the front)

Positive psychology

The disciplines of positive psychology and appreciative inquiry provide the conceptual framework and tools to support appreciation. Positive psychology identifies the negative bias in our thinking – understandable in an evolutionary context shaping risk aversion responses. In the twentieth century we invented hundreds of words to describe deficit and dysfunction (and built industries around these). Thus, in our private and organisational lives, we are naturally inclined to the negative. While acknowledging this, positive psychology aspires “to find and nurture genius and talent.” Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, identifies that those “experiencing positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio with negative ones leads people to a tipping point beyond which they naturally become more resilient to adversity”. This calls us to be more aware of our emotions and look for the positive around us. Finding those things that we are grateful for, is the portal to appreciation. Viktor Frankl, in his inspiring Man’s Search for Meaning, reveals how this can happen in the most extreme environments:

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken form a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitudes in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (pg 65 to 66).

Appreciative inquiry

As people respond to the myriad things that can go wrong, the default mode of operation in organisations can be fault-finding and problem-solving. David Cooperrider and others advocate an appreciative approach. “…problem-solving approaches are notorious for placing blame and generating defensiveness. ‘They sap your energy and tax your mind, and don’t advance the organization’s evolution beyond a slow crawl’”. By contrast appreciative inquiry advocates that we look for what is working well and magnify it. This is akin to the idea that the racing-car driver is best to focus on the road ahead rather than the wall. Appreciative inquiry can shape strategy or operations by selecting an affirmative topic, such as “where are our best examples of delivering a great customer experience?” and then working through the four stages of inquiry – discovery, dream, design and destiny (see below). Imagine the intensification of engagement and potential for positive change made possible by this process.

Caveat: appreciation works best with proximity

I believe that engagement is the gateway to appreciation, or a pre-requisite (I welcome your thinking on this). In situations where peoples’ voice is not given space for expression, appreciation will be a rare commodity. In many organisations islands of appreciation can develop amongst colleagues and teams in close (or virtual) proximity. The challenge is to make it more pervasive and immune to boundaries. And appreciation is not ingratiation. The organisation phenomena that fosters primitive “kiss up, kick down” behaviour creates the antithesis of appreciation.

Generating appreciation

Here are simple steps to increase appreciation

  1. Check your filters – audit what you pay attention to in different situations.
  2. Notice what good/great/beautiful about a friend, loved one, contact or colleague.
  3. Express appreciation addressing specific behaviours or attitudes rather than general compliments.

What has your experience of appreciation been – I would love to hear your story.

Additional resources:

Appreciative inquiry

Positive psychology

Here is the John Hayes video on appreciative enquiry.

The communication spectrum and listening

Communication is a core skill for stakeholder engagement. How does listening fits with the communication spectrum?

Listening, as with communication, is generic. The communication spectrum helps us to be more specific about the type of communication we want to use, and the same principle applies with listening. For those who haven’t had some sort of coaching or training in listening (the majority of us?), listening is undifferentiated. Some may have learned about active listening. Part of the problem is that good listening, while outwardly passive, takes a lot of focus and discipline, and it’s a little hard to simultaneously listen, and stand back an observe yourself in action.

The neutral zone

Using the communication spectrum, we can identify three zones of listening. In the neutral zone, our listening can be passive and possibly not very effective. We might be disinterested or bored. If our interest is piqued, we might either move towards being more engaged or, on the other hand toward debate and conflict.

The red zone

If our listening heads south towards the red zone we begin to listen for what is wrong. You have probably caught yourself doing this – what started off as a conversation, at some stage became a contest. A clear sign is that you find yourself trying to score points and the communication takes on the pattern of strike and counter-strike of a rally in a tennis match. In formal debates, speakers have their own material to present, but are also listening to find fault in the arguments of the opposition. Debate in our democracies unfortunately operates on this premise, often yielding more heat than light.

The green zone

If the communication heads for the green zone, the listener will draw on skills of rapport building, empathic listening or active listening. For some, these skills have developed non-consciously, others work at them. Expressing appreciation to others needs to be preceded by either observing, or listening for what is right about that person.

Listening for engagement

Communication skills are a core competence for any organisation aspiring to better stakeholder engagement. Improving staff communication skills, in either listening, speaking or writing, equips your staff to engage better internally and externally. One skill especially relevant is empathy. When working with people on engagement processes such as stakeholder mapping, or identifying materiality, I encourage them to think from the stakeholder’s perspective. It takes some practice – it is very easy for people to revert to their own perspective. I suspect this is because most of us are keen to maximise advantage for our organisation. Stakeholder communication calls us to be more nimble and inclusive in our thinking, listening and speaking.

Peter Bruce April 2010. Adapted from Peter’s http://stakeholderengagementnz.wordpress.com/

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