We talk a lot about communication on this blog, because communicating well is integral to the human experience. We cannot build or maintain relationships without good communication skills. The fallout of bad communication is all around us. Part of the problem, of course, is because we are all very different human beings, with different backgrounds and perceptions. Our view is not someone else’s view.
Communicating at the same level can help bridge the gap.
Sometimes we have communication misses because we’re tired, we’re unempathetic, or we don’t understand. However, sometimes we do not connect because we’re speaking at different levels.
There are five levels of interpersonal communication. Each level is distinct from the others. Additionally, the levels of communication align with the size of our social circles. The more intimate our relationship with someone, the further down the the communication funnel we are willing to go.
Level One: Ritual
We communicate at this level with everyone, including strangers. This is the level of the head nod at the person next to you pumping gas or the person you pass on the sidewalk as you’re walking your dog. In essence, this is the level of politeness.
- “How are you?” (Without expecting an answer.)
- Head bob
Level Two: Superficial
This is the acquaintance level. You know something about these people, so you expect some give and take in the conversation. But you don’t know them or the situation well, so you stay at high level topics like the weather.
- “How are you doing?” (And expect an answer.)
- “Beautiful day out today.”
- “How about them Bears?”
- “Nice scarf.”
Level Three: Factual
These are more meaningful conversations, generally with people you know somewhat well. People you converse with at this level you likely call friends, but not the type of friends you invite over for game night. A lot of work relationships fall into this category. Conversations at level three focus on facts about problem solving, personal interests, and general information.
- “Did you see the budget for next year?”
- “I heard you were out sick last week. How are you feeling?”
- “Did you have a nice vacation?”
- “What are you doing this weekend?
- “HR wants to switch up the training to next month, but several of us can’t make the dates.”
Level Four: Opinions
Level four takes the facts at level three to a deeper level by integrating personal opinion. This level of communication is usually reserved for people with whom we have a solid trusting relationship. These are people who are tried and true, and we feel safe to share our “real” thoughts. Because this level is opinion-oriented, employing active listening, curiosity, and empathy are vital.
- “That idea sounds good on paper, but logistically I don’t think it will work.”
- “That referee made the worst call of the night and made us lose the game.”
- “Can you believe they’re going through with the merger? Stupid idea. We’re all going to lose our jobs.”
- “The speech the new CEO made at the banquet was brilliant! I’m so excited to work with her.”
- “So glad we used the extra money to buy this printer instead of new desk chairs.”
Level Five: Feelings
This final level includes not only our opinions, but our feelings about our opinions. Level five requires both the listener and the speaker to move past empathy to compassion, according to Alexander Draghici. “Since sharing feelings about each other involves risk and vulnerability, you need someone you know well and trust. Someone with whom you feel comfortable enough to share intimate aspects of your life,” Draghici says. Because of the level of trust needed for these types of conversations, they are generally reserved for our most intimate relationships.
- “I’m scared my spouse is going to leave me.”
- “I don’t think I’m good at my job.”
- “What if the tests come back positive?”
Converse at the same level and work your way down.
During my time counseling, I’ve noticed vast communication gaps because people are conversing at two different levels. For example, one person is staying at level three and the other person is at level five. Basically, they aren’t talking about the same thing–one is discussing facts while the other is discussing feelings. Then they both get frustrated and misunderstanding ensues.
When having a conversation with someone, notice at what level they are communicating, then stay with them on that level. I recommend starting at level one and working your way down, depending on the level of trust. If someone jumps directly to level four or five, suggest a break and a time to restart the conversation from a less emotionally charged level.
Thanks for reading,
DeAnne Negley, T-LMHC, NCC