You usually know when you are headed into an important exchange—a big conversation—where you have something significant to gain or lose. It’s that conversation where what you could lose would be difficult to recover, and what you could gain may never appear again. In other words, you have one opportunity to make it work.

We all know when we’re steering into a talk worth having, but we don’t always know how important it will be. Or we might be talking to someone and not realize how important the subject is to them when it seems less so to us. By misjudging the other person’s emotional investment in a discussion, we might be sabotaging their trust in us.

There are several reasons people want to talk, and when they do, it’s usually with less or more emotional investment in the exchange.

Less Invested
We invest less when we’re in chitchat mode, enjoying a casual discussion, simply exchanging information or brainstorming. In these engagements, there is little threat and we’re less on guard. This type of conversation is likely going to be sterile—the only real danger we face in such encounters is that we might come off as less than truthful or slip into insult, disregard or condescension. You have to remember to show respect to others as they speak, even in these situations.

When we’re brainstorming, meanwhile, we operate in a context of playing or exploring. It is one of the rare forms of conversation where people are fairly comfortable with chaos and disorder (a storm they can actually enjoy).

More Invested
Then there are times we’re more emotionally invested—when we’re trying to negotiate, persuade, apologize, show concern or solve conflicts. Also, we’re more invested when we’re openly in disagreement with someone. In these more intense encounters, both parties are often fairly vigilant.

In apologies, for instance, we are often fragile, hoping for forgiveness and harmony, and we typically want to end the conversation as soon as possible, perhaps prematurely when we would miss a more important goal of better understanding each other. If we’re in disagreement with someone, successful communicating requires a flexible frame of mind to change strategies at the last minute instead of getting locked into a preconceived script. (Think of quarterback Peyton Manning changing plays at the last minute—which is known in football as “calling an audible.”)

In some cases, we’re intent on achieving order and pushing for resolution—even though a premature push for order short-circuits the results we hope to achieve. By pushing too hard and too fast in conversation, our need for control can backfire on us and have the opposite effect.

We all know the frustration of trying to arrive at a compromise with someone obsessed with an item on their mental agenda. Far too often, we have too much emotion invested in a particular point of view. We want it done our way or not at all. But if we can feel comfortable reading the defense, we’ll be better served than we would be if our conversational game plans were written in granite after we said “Hello.”

Don’t forget that people will often argue because their feeling of dignity hangs in the balance. But when the subject at hand becomes more important to you than the person you’re talking to, you’ll lose sight of the main objective—connectivity. You both will likely lose sight of the matter and the conversation will devolve into a hunt where one person senses a lack of respect.

Great conversationalists recognize that the biggest opportunity of all is the possibility of connecting with another human being in a meaningful way. If relationships matter to us, and if we want to ensure results, then every conversation must be about “we” not just “you” or “me.” 

“What a wonderful person he is,” you hear someone saying about an advisor who, with genuine curiosity, seeks to learn as much as possible about other people and their ideas.

“I’m absolutely exhausted,” says someone after conversing with the polar opposite—the rambling, opining, spouting volcano of self-indulgence.

What’s At Stake?
It’s important to ask yourself: “What is at stake in this conversation?” It might be bigger than just winning business or looking good. In fact, it might be the very quality of your relationships at stake. It doesn’t take more than two or three disappointing talks before someone gives up on connecting with you. Once they sense that your vision doesn’t go beyond your nose, you’re written off as not worth their time.

And if someone is forced to converse with a self-involved person, perhaps through a business or family connection, they can only feign interest in the exchange and likely resent it. You don’t want to be on the receiving end of that resentment. But if you fail to master the art of conversation, that is where you can end up. The good news is, again, that you can avoid this fate by paying more attention to people than to your own agenda.

You might be in a conversation with someone about a personal matter, an important business matter or a money matter, or you might be clarifying a misunderstanding. But whatever it is, you must be aware of a discussion’s significance. You might not have as much skin in the game as the other party, but you might have something to gain (or lose) without even realizing it.

Conversations set people apart, either in isolation or in veneration. It is in the exchange of conversation that we connect or disconnect with people, promote or impede progress, affirm or deny our credibility, and seal our legacy and reputation.

Mitch Anthony is the creator of Life-Centered Planning, the author of 12 books for advisors, and the co-founder of and