The 4 Levels of Communication

by Steven Kessler

A friend recently told me about this way of assessing the depth of intimacy in any given communication and I found it very helpful, so I thought I'd pass it on to you. I have fleshed out each of the levels.

Many of us are already aware of these levels unconsciously. Whatever social skills training we had was good enough that we just automatically sense what level of intimacy is okay in a given situation and shift into that. However, not all of us were so fortunate, so having an explicit map of these levels of communication can be a big help.

1. Small Talk – (Talking About Nothing)

We call this small talk because you are not really talking about anything of importance to you. These are conversation openers (or even entire conversations) about the weather, the time, or anything in the immediate surroundings.

Sometimes those of us who are focused on being intimate and open dislike this level of contact. We can even get judgmental about it and call it boring or dishonest. I think that when we do that, we are missing the function of this level of contact. This is the opening level of contact, the one used when striking up a conversation with a stranger. The communication here is intended to be free of content, because the real communication is about the fact of the contact, not about content.

If you're sitting on a park bench and you say to the stranger next to you, “Nice day today, huh?” the real communication is not the one about the weather, but the one underneath it, in which you're asking “Are you open to talking with me?” Their reply might range from a smile and an agreeing comment to an icy stare to turning away. Clearly the first response means “yes” and the last means “no,” but that conversation was only implied, never stated.

The indirectness of this form of communication makes it safer for both people. A direct query, such as “Are you open to talking with me?”, would have been more intimate and confronting. As we will see in a minute, it would have been a leap to the fourth level of communication, to talking about us. That would be too big a leap, but by talking about the weather, we can negotiate that question indirectly.

2. Talking About Something

Here the content is important. We have already established that we will talk with each other, so now we can proceed to talking about something we care about, but not yet to talking about ourselves. The subject could be anything -- it could be sports, or science, or politics, or even the weather, as long as we care about it. Here what we are saying is now the foreground, and how we are saying it is more in the background. We might be agreeing or disagreeing, but our focus in on the content of our communication, more than on the subtext.

This is more intimate than the first level because we care about this subject matter. The fact that it matters to us is what makes this communication more intimate.

This is the level where we are focused on the facts and on our beliefs. Most public communication probably falls into this category, especially conversations among men.

3. Talking About Me or Talking About You

Now the subject is personal. Now I am telling you about me and my thoughts and feelings, or you are telling me about you and your thoughts and feelings. We are now talking explicitly about ourselves and our own inner experience.

The shift to personal disclosure is what marks this as a deeper level of communication than the second level. If in-ti-ma-cy means into-me-you-see, then we are now there. We are revealing our selves to each other.

Notice that only one of us may be revealing themselves, while the other just listens and supports them in that. All the focus may be on only one person, as they explore and put into words their inner experience. The other person just holds space for them. Or the two people may be trading personal disclosures as a way to get to know each other at a deeper level.
This level of communication is more common among women and usually happens in more private conversations.

4. Talking About Us

At this fourth level, the subject is not just you or me, but us -- how we feel about each other, how we treat each other, what we want from each other, and what our hopes are for the relationship in the future. This is 'talking about the relationship'. It is the most tender and vulnerable level of communication and is almost always reserved for private conversations.

The shifting of a conversation from level 1 to level 2 to level 3 is a process of deepening intimacy between the participants. As they negotiate and establish a sense of connection at one level, they feel safe enough to progress to the next level.

Notice also that a conversation doesn't necessarily stay on one level, but may move from level to level, either up or down. Two strangers may meet at a party, begin with level 1 and progress to level 2 or even level 3. But if a new person joins the conversation, they will probably drop back a level because they no longer feel safe enough to stay where they were. As they get to know the new person a little bit, they may again shift to a more intimate level or they may not, depending on how safe each person feels.

You may also notice that, within one conversation, different people may be communicating on different levels. Each will unconsciously move to the level where they feel most at home. Often, they will then attempt to get the others to join them at that level. This is often a source of friction within a male-female couple, with the man wanting to talk on level 2 while the woman wants to talk on level 3 or level 4. When a woman says to her man, “We need to talk,” she is probably saying “I want us to talk on level 4.”

Clearly, there is much more that we could explore about these different levels and how people use them in different situations, but I hope that this brief overview at least gets you thinking and gives you a map to help you more skillfully navigate the world of human communications.

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