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The Four Levels of Communication
Amplify your connection with others by communicating at the right level.
You may forget the one with whom you have laughed, but never the one with whom you have wept. - Kahlil Gibran
Have you ever been in a conversation with someone and felt a huge disconnect, as if you were talking on completely different levels? If so, the disconnect you felt was likely because you were communicating at different levels. There are four different levels of communication, each with its own context and ends.
The first level of communication is the social level. This is where we talk about the weather, sports, news, or around the things we care about. It's superficial communication, but useful nonetheless, as it allows us to function amongst strangers and determine whether the people around us are foes or potential friends.
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The second level of communication is the mental level. This is where we talk about ideas, facts, non-controversial beliefs, plans, strategies, and tips. Most of our professional conversations fall into this area, and some people spend a great deal of their resources to ensure they're the best communicator at this level. No one is smarter, wittier, or better learned than them and they are never wrong.
The chasm between the first two levels of communication is relatively narrow. A polite conversation can turn into a mentally stimulating conversation very quickly and can collapse back to a polite conversation or none at all with no lingering residue. Aside from the context of conversations wherein somebody has a vested interest in being the more mentally powerful, the first two levels are "safe" conversations.
The Deep Levels of Communication
The third level of communication is the emotional level. This is the level in which we talk about our wants, needs, aspirations, fears, and joys. Eyes well up, lips quiver, and voices fail at this level, just as those same eyes light up, chests pound, and words become inert.
The chasm between the first two levels and the third is rather wide because the third level is the level of trust, intimacy, vulnerability, and transparency. Most of us are afraid to be wrong and absolutely terrified to be rejected and communicating at the emotional level opens us up to be rejected, hurt, and scarred. This is even worse for men, as we have learned that even displaying the signs of emotional communication is a signal of weakness, let alone having those emotions. That nice slap on the back that we give each other during the shoulder hug is the understood agreement that a full hug sans slap is pushing things too far.
It's a daily tragedy that so many people yearn for emotional connection and communication yet so adamantly push it away. We spend our days in conversations about nothing and inert ideas, yet rarely are we asked about our dreams, wants, needs, and joys. The emotional level is the foundation upon which relationships, families, teams, and societies are built, though. It's also the basis of practices like the 4 Questions to Ask Yourself Every Day.
The fourth level of communication is the spiritual level. This is the hardest one to talk about, as our scientific-reductionistic mindset and language fails to either capture or acknowledge it, at the same time that it's the hardest to actually spot in the wild because so few people can sink into the level of being required to speak from it by themselves, let alone around others. This level of communication is the absolute highest level of resonance, with no distortion from social, mental, or emotional games — it's almost as if there's a direct energetic embrace during the communication. No push, pull, take, give, win, lose, me, you; it all melts away.
(Aside: in past years, I would've left the spiritual level out, both because of a more closed-off worldview and also to not look like a fool; these days it's more important for me to talk about what we experience rather than just what we can make perfect sense of.)
Communication at these deeper levels takes time, trust, and intention. All three can be in short supply for different reasons, but it's not something to spring on people who aren't ready to go there with you. That said, it's a wonderful experience for those people who have been yearning to go there with you.
The Four Levels of Communication In Practice
As powerful and sublime as the emotional spiritual levels of communications are, they are too intense and raw to be maintained for too long and many people aren't prepared for them. The point of this post isn't to encourage you to advance one level over the other, but to be more aware of which levels you're needing from who. You may not be able to communicate with some people at one level but be able to at others, at the same time that the way you go about communicating at the levels is different. To flourish, you'll want to find context in which you can each type of conversations, yet expecting the same people to be able to have all levels of communication is disastrous.
The spiritual level of communication is particularly challenging on this front. The foundational identities we carry in the world — friend, parent, spouse, lover, sibling — are often hard to disconnect with to get to the level of being required for this level of resonance. We're often all too aware of the emotional wants and needs of people we're in those kinds of relationships with and can't help but play the role. This, I believe, is why communities and societies that have rights of passage intentionally remove the person going through the passage from the people they're in those key relationships with. (I could be wrong on this; I hope to have four or five more decades of exploration to investigate this.)
It's also important to know when you're communicating about something that may shift the layer of conversation; a social comment given to your neighbor about how fantastic it is that her husband is such a caring father may create an emotional conversation down the road if it's overheard by your husband.
Lastly, if you're working through something and find that you need new ways of working through it, one of the best things you can do is to talk to someone who you know is good at communicating at a different level than may be normal for you. Coaches, therapists, gurus, strategists, and socialites all communicate differently in the world, as do mavens, connectors, and salespeople. Talking to people is often the easiest way to shift into a different way of thinking, feeling, and understanding what we're going through because we don't have to try to shift — other people will catalyze the shift for us.
To improve your level of connection with others, change the level of communication with them. (Tweet this.)
How might you improve your connection with the people you care about this weekend using what you've learned here?