Thursday, February 23, 2012

Levels of Communication: Why we're disconnected in a connected world

I'm reading a book that suggests that there are 5 levels of communication, with level 5 being the least communicative of the inner self and level 1 being the most communicative.  I've tweaked their thoughts a bit but it has brought me to some rather interesting thoughts which I will share at the end.

Level 5 - cliche conversation.  "Hi, how are you?"  Nothing is really given of the self at this level.  No risk is taken; yet some interaction has taken place.
Level 4 - reporting facts.  At this level, virtually nothing of the self is communicated.  All that is learned about the person is what he or she observed or heard.
Level 3 - reporting thoughts.  Risks are taken at this level because our personal beliefs can draw anger, hurt, and other reactions squarely at us.
Level 2 - reporting emotions.  This is "gut level" communication, the one where the greatest risks are felt.  Healthy group communication requires this level of sharing on a consistent basis.
Level 1 - perfect, mutual, empathetic understanding.  All of the other levels of communication are based upon one person and their willingness for openness, however this level requires consistent, open, mutual communication between more than one person so that these people begin to understand and empathize with each other.

I found this to be very insightful and helpful in thinking about communication; I believe I have observed these levels of communication within my own relationships and can attest to their accuracy.

Now, on to the interesting thoughts that this raised in my mind.  I have observed and heard others observe that as a culture we have picked up a habit of prefacing thoughts or feelings with "I think" or "I feel".  We no longer just say what we believe or what we are feeling, rather we couch our thoughts and feelings as that.  It seems to me that this type of communication releases a person from the risks associated with opening themselves up and sharing of their inner self.  If I say "People shouldn't eat desserts after 9pm" it opens me up to argument and attack, however if I say "I think people shouldn't eat desserts after 9pm" I have deflected that attack because rather than stating what I think I have stated the fact that I think it, and who can argue with that?
Same with our feelings.  Rather than saying "You hurt me when you said ..." we say "I feel like you were trying to hurt me" or "I felt hurt when you said..."  It is a subtle change, and one that may seem insignificant, but we all do it; I've noticed that virtually everyone will couch thoughts and feelings with an "I think" or "I feel".

Now, I'm going to connect these two thoughts and this is where I get.  In the past 30-50 years, with the advance of psychology and the encouragement to share our feelings, our culture has become much more open about our inner selves.  We are more willing to express our thoughts and feelings, to engage in what would appear to be level 2 and 3 communication.  And this should lead to vulnerability, to openness, and ultimately to change (whenever we open ourselves up to those around us we give them the ability to speak into and change our inner being), however, I think that we have created defenses around this.  Rather than honestly opening up and sharing our thoughts and feelings whatever the risks, we turn our thoughts and feelings into facts.

Rather than saying what I am thinking, I communicate it as external facts. Its the difference between saying "The fact is, I think the U.S. is the leading cause of world hunger."  and "The U.S. is the leading cause of world hunger"  In the second I have revealed a bit of my inner workings, my thoughts and feelings on the issue, which opens me to ridicule or attack, but in the second I have turned my thoughts and feelings into an external fact and reported that fact to you instead, thus moving our communication to the fourth level rather than the third or second where it could be.

We can see this all around in our society.  Even in facebook statuses, people take what could and is very personal and display it as a 200 character fact for the world to see.  Suddenly their emotions aren't as raw or their thoughts as real, they're just facts on a page that we engage and then move on.

Does your speech reflect your real thoughts and emotions?  Are you willing and able to engage in deep, raw, real revelation of your inner self?  May you grow in your vulnerability and willingness to share your inner thoughts and feelings with those closest to you, thereby growing the depth of your relationships and allowing for deeper and longer lasting change in who you are.


  1. I've realized that I cushion/couch some of my statements and thoughts, even in conversation that isn't directly related to my feelings or emotions. I'll toss in a "probably" to make the statement seem less harsh. Ex: "I probably won't be there for dinner because of "_______"." Instead of: "I won't be there for dinner." Perhaps we convince ourselves that it is more polite to cushion our statements in some fashion?

    In regards to thoughts, feelings, emotions... Over time, I have conditioned myself to start with cushioned statements. It is a process of figuring out how invested the other person is in the conversation. Which is to say: I want to see just how interested they are in me and what they are asking. Some times, they are simply saying, "How are you," or, "How have you been doing?" as a means of greeting and conversation starting. Other times, they are being more intentional, and the conversation can progress in that direction. However, if it was never their intent to get that deep and truly discover my thoughts, feelings, emotions, I'm not standing there making bold statements (that could be intimidating if unexpected).

    My thoughts for food.

  2. Very insightful. Its amazing to realize how everything we say is wrapped up in emotions or fear. Its really hard to just honestly be yourself. I'm sure you see this playing out in the first years of marriage as I do.

    I think we can take each side to far. Like you said we can defend ourselves with words to stave off attack. We also can be too arrogant, and state things as fact that we don't know are completely true, just to sound knowledgeable and confident.

    Just as is true with most of life, honesty his a balance between extremes. Finding ourselves is learning to be an tightrope walker on the this line which is trusting God completely.