Today I want to share my thoughts on how the participants’ relative levels of knowledge both affect a conversation and offer opportunities to make a conversation great.

Imagine yourself in a conversation with one person. You’re not trying to record the conversation, nor create any specific experience for others. Let’s also imagine this conversation is intentional: you’ve started talking to this person because their hat is interesting, they just finished a keynote and you have a question, or you’ve stopped in a bakery during a tour of a Paris neighborhood. I’d like you to take a few moments to imagine an actual conversation by visualizing a person, a place, and something you’re conversing about.

I’m also doing my own imagining. I, too, have an imaginary conversation partner, place, and topic. If it enhances your reading pleasure, you should imagine that I’m discussing croissants with the proprietor of Rose Bakery at 46 Rue des Martyrs.

Next, some semantics: I’ll refer to you, and to me, in our imagined conversations, as the “host”, and the other person as our “guest”. (Normal convention would label me as the guest in the proprietor’s bakery.) Regardless of the scenarios in our imagined conversations, we’ll always think of ourselves as the host, and the other person as the guest. By fixing ourselves in a host mindset, we’re setting a critically important intention for our conversations, both imagined and real.

Knowledge and a model

Every conversation is about a topic. Certainly, the topic can change mid-conversation, the topic can be unclear, or the conversation partners might disagree if we asked them to name the topic. When you start to pay attention, you’ll notice there’s always a topic. In our imagined conversations here, we are talking about that hat, the keynote question, or those tasty croissants.

Let’s build a model. All models are wrong, but some models are useful. The model is simply that the host and guest each fall somewhere on a spectrum of knowledge about the topic of the conversation. We’ll simply label each person as “beginner”, “intermediate”, or “advanced” with respect to the topic at hand.

I find this model useful because it gets me thinking about unusual and unexpected conversations. Without a model, it’s difficult to get better at unusual conversations because they’re rarely encountered. Also, while it’s possible to get better at how one reacts to the unexpected, this model expands what I expect I might encounter. (That is to say: the model shows me unknown unknowns.)

This simple model tells us there are nine possible combinations for us and our guest.

In the hat conversation, we might have the advanced level knowledge, while the hat wearer is a beginner (advanced host and beginner guest). In the keynote question conversation, some new-to-us topic has prompted our question (beginner host and advanced guest). And my knowledge of croissants is intermediate compared to the baker’s (intermediate host, advanced guest). Take a moment to figure out the relative levels of yourself and your guest in your current, imagined conversation.

I’m not suggesting we should try to use this model in our conversations. I’m suggesting we explore the model, and having learned from the model, we can go back to having conversations which are better.

What does the model teach us?

At this point you already have everything you need to learn from this model. Simply plug in the variations and imagine. Here’s my imagining what the model says about my (imagined!) croissants conversation:

Since I’ve arrived when things aren’t too busy, the baker is in a great mood. He clearly loves his job. And this croissant speaks for itself and for him being advanced (also I looked up Rose Bakery reviews). I’m clearly an American in Paris, and despite the nice weather, I’m still a big, sweaty person who just walked up a hill. But I’m interested in croissants. He thinks I seem to really enjoy this particular croissant. I ask a question about where he gets his butter from, and I ask him if it’s the water that makes it so great. “Beginners” know about butter mattering, but “intermediates” know the water matters too… or, so I think. Thus my question to him about water. Again, I’m just giving an example of my thinking, based on one combination from the model.

To learn from the model, you would pick your own combinations and imagine those conversations. And you will find (I hope!) that lots of questions appear for you to explore on your own.

Taking things further

Remember that the point of all of this is to learn to use this model to explore conversations. I’m not suggesting it’s useful to be thinking about this model while in conversations.

What if there were a listener (a third person standing nearby) added to our conversation?

What if we were a podcaster with listeners (who can literally only listen)?

Let’s try expanding the model.

The model will label the listener as “beginner”, “intermediate”, or “advanced” in the same way it labels the host and guest. Our simple model which gave us nine combinations of host and guest to consider, suddenly gives us 27 combinations of listener, host and guest!

If the model is getting hard to hold in your head, try a visual: picture the host and guest facing each other. Now add a listener standing directly behind the host. With these three people in a straight line, the host is blocking the listener’s direct view of the guest (which is also a nice metaphor for podcasters, reminding us to get out of the way). Next, imagine those people are standing on big blocks that look like those in an Olympics medal ceremony. (You may as well imagine the music too.) Each of their heights represents their knowledge level: lower for beginners, mid-height for intermediate, and highest for advanced.

Now you can visually picture the three people, each at their corresponding levels. Remember that our model can have multiple people at the same level. (This isn’t the Olympics.) This visualization makes it possible to imagine a scenario and hold the scenario in your head as you work through the possibilities and opportunities of that specific, imagined conversation.

For example, picture this: beginner listener, with an intermediate host, talking with an advanced guest. Do you see it? (Is the Olympics theme also playing?)

This model immediately begs a number of questions. The following are the sorts of questions that keep me up at night.

For a podcaster, the reality of a conversation is even worse than imagining one of those 27 combinations happening. Because the listener can only ever be imagined, I may as well imagine all three listeners, one at each level. (In our visualization of the model, there are now three people, at the three levels, behind the host.) Question:

  • If I’m at the advanced level and I’m talking with a guest who is also advanced, what should our conversation be to benefit each of those three levels of listeners?

And then the model suggests asking:

  • Am I better, generally, at a particular combination of host and guest levels?
  • Am I better, in terms of serving a particular listener level, with certain host and guest levels?
  • Could I work on any (or all) of the (nine) host-guest combinations to improve how I serve the three levels of listeners?
  • Could my forte be to intentionally choose a less common (in podcast space) combination of host and guest levels?
  • Could I do better work if I picked one of the listener levels and tried only to serve them?
  • What if I picked a less common host and guest combination, and an unusual listener level? (For example, could I create great conversations that served advanced-level listeners, while I am an intermediate-level host talking with beginner-level guests? …and what should I do so my work stays at “intermediate-level” as I do more conversations?)
  • Is there any combination (of the overall 27 combinations of the three roles) which seems particularly hard? Should I, could I, and how would I get good at that particular combination? Could that be the niche I’m looking for?


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