As a kid, activating the enter/exit doors was my favorite grocery store activity. I loved it, even anticipated it. I remember the big rubber mat on either side of the door. When you entered or exited, you stepped on the mat and presto, the door swung wide to welcome you or send you on your way.

Before the moment of activation, my excitement would rise. It piqued as I reached the mat. Sometimes I raced family members to get there first. And then, like magic, my foot landed on the sensor and the door swung open. Ah, the simple joys of the early ’70s.

Of course, sensors on doors have become more sophisticated since my childhood. But the idea remains the same; you get close enough to the sensor, trigger it, and the door opens. Though the sensor is somewhat hidden from view these days, it plays an important role in opening the door. Without it, we would not enter the desired space. But alas, we don’t travel to a store or building to trigger the sensor. When the sensor does its thing, we don’t get all excited, as I did in 1971. We expect it to work and we move on with our day.

Interactional Sensors

There is another kind of sensor that we should pay far more attention to. I’ll call this sensor an interactional sensor. When triggered, interactional sensors open up important moments between people. Interactional sensors open space for critical conversations and the sharing of wisdom.

You could think of an interactional sensor as the sensor that opens the door to a teachable moment. Parents understand the value of the teachable moment. We often look for a trigger that can open space to deposit wisdom or one of our many ubiquitous lectures. Yet, looking for teachable moments is important for all sorts of relationships. When a relationship matters, it’s important to make space for wisdom-giving (and receiving). That’s where interactional sensors, and corresponding triggers, come in handy. Take leading a team, for example. Interactional sensors can open opportune moments to explore critical insights or challenging ideas.

Triggering Interactional Sensors

There are two ways to use interactional sensors. You can start one or can exploit one.

     Initiated Interactional Sensors

When we insert words/phrases — with intention — we trip a sensor that opens conversational space. A friend of mine calls these types of triggers, intentional word tracks. This can be as simple as:

“Hey Jim, I’d like to talk about your first three weeks on the job. It could also be more nuanced. “So you’ve been in your position three weeks now. Tell me about something that’s surprised you and something that’s frustrated you.”

Deliberate interactional triggers are like stepping on the 70’s enter/exit mat. We intend to open up a conversational space. We do so by triggering the interactional sensor. We pre-plan what, and how, we will open the space. When that person is nearby, we move into action.

The better you know someone, the more succinct the deliberate trigger can be. Intimate partners can open a conversational space with a glance. The point is this: You use an initiated trigger when you intend to open up space for exploration.

     Exploited Interactional Sensors

Exploited interactional triggers happen — or appear to happen — in random ways. Let’s take the same “new employee” example above. You’re sitting at lunch with new employee Jim and he says, “Wow, I wasn’t expecting the pace of the work. Things move fast here.” As the receiver, you may or may not have anticipated that comment. But the comment triggers the sensor and opens the door.

At this point, the question then is: “What do you do with that open door?” If the stakes are high and the conversation is critical, you might exploit that moment. You could ask a probing question to understand more about Jim’s perspective. Based on this “exploited conversation,” you may talk with Jim about the company culture. Or you may tuck the comment away for a later conversation. Timing matters. The point is this: You use an exploited trigger when you find a space open you didn’t expect but want to explore. Often exploited sensors open a space you wanted to explore with another person. You hadn’t found the right time. Then, presto. The door opens. This can be a powerful and more natural opening; if you believe the time is right.

How to Activate Interactional Sensors.

Here’s a step by step process you can use to initiate or exploit sensors and insert wisdom into any moment.

If you want to open or exploit a conversational space first explore these questions.

  1. What is the “domain of change I want to explore with the person?”Answering this question allows you to identify and name the domain. If it’s an employee, it could be the domain of performance. If it’s an intimate partner, it could be the domain of communication or finances. Identifying and naming the domain helps you locate the conversation. It’s like deciding that after work you want to go to your favorite microbrewery. You think, “I’m going to Hip Dayz Brewery after work.” You identify and name the brewery. Knowing and naming the brewery, helps you maneuver your world after work. Not to mention enjoy that amazing chocolate porter. If you have predetermined the domain of change, it allows you to better open or exploit an open door.
  2. What is the needed change? If the stakes are high and the relationship is critical, it’s not enough to identify and name the domain. Then you must articulate the change needed within that domain. Get clear in own mind about the change you desire. The specific change needed is an opportunity zone. An opportunity for needed change. This might be a change in perspective, mindset, behavior or quality of the relationship.
  3. What insights, ideas, or behavioral shifts (wisdom) could support the needed change? This question helps hone the message of wisdom you want to share. What ideas, insights, or wisdom do you want to share? to you want to impart or explore? A freind of mine recently talked to her daughter about working hard in college. My friend shared well-trodden advice based on her own experience. Did her daughter listen? Time will tell. But that’s not the point. The point of the third question is to ready the wisdom and be precise in the sharing.

Once you’ve answered the questions above, you’re ready to trip or exploit an interactional sensor. You can do this in one of two ways, and this brings us back to initiated and exploited sensors. If you choose to trip the sensor, here’s a checklist for the approach:

Do you have your domain identified? Check.

Do you have the needed change within the domain identified? Check.

Do you have your wisdom ready to articulate with precision? Check.

Have I determined the right time and place to open the conversation? Check.

Have I determined the mindset and energy I must bring to the conversation? Check.

If you’ve checked off the items, then when it’s time, trigger the sensor and invite the person into the space. You can do this in direct or indirect ways. I provided an example of both earlier.

Direct: Hey Jim. Wow, you’ve already been here for three weeks. Tell me something that has surprised you and something that’s frustrated you.”

Indirect: Hey Jim. Three weeks already? Wow. “Seems like we had your first- day party yesterday. It goes fast doesn’t it?”

The indirect initiated trigger needs a bit more explanation. Using an indirect trigger can seem a bit manipulative. If I want to talk to Jim about his three-week work impressions, shouldn’t I ask in a straightforward way? Why be indirect? It’s important to understand that the indirect method is still deliberate. In our example, the goal is to talk to Jim about his impressions. If the indirect approach fails, I’ll have to switch to a direct approach.

Here are reasons you should NOT use an indirect approach:

  1. You are afraid to have the conversation
  2. You want it to feel like the other person brought up the topic
  3. You want the conversation to be about the other person not about the relationship or system
  4. You don’t want the person to get upset

Tripping a sensor in an indirect way may provide more safety for the other person. It may also allow you both to ease into a difficult topic. There are times a person is not ready for a direct approach. Or a direct approach might shut a person down. When we trigger the interactional sensor in a subtle way we then must remain mindful. The person’s response to the trigger may reveal she didn’t take the invite to join you. Then you have to try again. At some point though, if the indirect trigger doesn’t work, you have to become more direct.

Consider this scenario: I want to talk about how Jim seems disengaged in meetings. He’s been on the job one month. Watch how the triggers that trip the door become more direct.

Me: Hey Jim. Wow, you’ve already been here a month. Time flies.

Jim: It sure does.

Me: How do you think things are going?

Jim: Fine. Pretty good, I guess.

Me: Pretty good?

Jim: Well ya know, it’s not perfect here.

Me: (Laughing) Wait, it’s not? (Laughing — trying to probe but with humor and subtlety)

Jim: Things are fine.

Me: Well we are sometimes accused of having a lot of meetings. I suppose we’re not perfect (smiling -wondering if Jim will talk about meetings).

Jim: Seems like I’m in meetings all day.

Me: (I think to myself: Bingo. Thank you Jim for joining me in the domain of change)

Me: Yeah, it can be hard to keep it all straight. Do you think the meetings are valuable? (Becoming more direct but still indirect)

Jim: I guess so. Although there does seem to be repetition to certain meetings I’m in. Sometimes it feels like I’m wasting time in the meetings.

Me (Here comes the moment of truth — the moment to deposit wisdom in the conversation)

Me: At some point, it might be that we should rethink the meetings you attend. But we’ve discovered that saturating a new person in meetings helps them get to know us and the work. When I was new, I remember feeling the same thing you’re feeling. In fact, I didn’t engage well in a lot of those early meetings. I wish I could get my disengagement back. There are still gaps in my knowledge because I didn’t pay attention early on. That’s a piece of advice I’ll give you. Stay engaged in the meetings. Let’s talk about the number of meetings in 30 days. For now, relax and get into them.

The very same conversation could occur through an exploited sensor. The one difference would be the opening -which Jim or someone else would activate.

Option 1 (Jim activates, you exploit)

Jim: Hey Dave.

Me: Hey Jim, How’s it going?

Jim: Geez, I’ve been in meetings all day.

Me: (Hello interactional sensor I didn’t expect but will now exploit)

Jim and Dave: Have the same conversation as above.

Option 2 (Someone else triggers the sensor, you exploit)

Setting: Jim, Susie, Pete, Carol, and Dave sitting in a conference room before a meeting

Carol: So Jim, how’s it going?

Jim: Pretty good, I think. Maybe I should ask you all? (Laughter)

Pete: How are all the meetings going Jim? Are you sick of us yet? (Laughter)

Jim: Well. I’ve never been in so many meetings in my life.

Me: (Hello interactional sensor I didn’t expect but will now exploit)

Jim and Dave, and the Group: Have the same conversation as above.

Even when you’re exploiting an unexpected opening, you still have to be deliberate. You have to know that you want to explore, the domain of change, the opportunity zone in the domain of change, and the wisdom you want to share. Bottom line: Both initiated and exploited sensors need a mindful and deliberate approach.

So go ahead; get all excited about interactional sensors. Go all “1970’s Dave” about them. Get your triggers ready. Create or watch for the activation of the sensor. Watch that door open and invite others into the space. And then let the wisdom flow.