Michael Sterling

Why You Want to Achieve ‘Level 3 Conversations’

3 Levels of Conversations for Leaders


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


When telling, they try to clearly specify what employees need to do – Level 1 conversation. When selling, they try to persuade them with reasons for doing it – Level 2 conversation. Unfortunately, some leaders resort to yelling or repeating themselves, and they 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 3 conversation.


When we respect others’ world views (especially when they differ from our own), we create a space for better conversations and encourage new ideas to emerge. Author, Judith E. Glaser has identified three levels of conversation:


3 Levels of Communication for Leaders




Level 1 – Transactional: The exchange of data and information.


Level 2 – Positional: The way we work with power and influence.


Level 3 – Transformational: The way we co-create the future to achieve mutual success.







Conversation as a Power Dance


Too often, we get stuck in Level 2 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.


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 3 conversations can we transform ourselves and our conversation 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 3. 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.


Holding Level 3 conversations requires honing our Conversational IQ. We all need to understand the science behind how words build or destroy trust and credibility. You can read more about how words trigger powerful reactions in our brains in “What’s Your Conversational IQ?


In the work I do coaching public accounting professionals, I often see professionals 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 surprises.


How can you avoid this? How can you engage in Level 3 conversations? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, leave me a comment.


Interested in more insights on communication and career development? Check out the Career Wellness library on the SterlingFreeman website.


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