The Five Levels of Communication in a Connected World

In the digital world in which we live, it has become too easy to send emails, ping people via instant message, text, tweet, etc. Upon reflection, I think I’ve been too haphazard about how I communicate with my colleagues, clients, friends, and family. Oftentimes, an email about a problem should have been a phone call. And sometimes a phone call should have been an in-person meeting.
Knowing what to say and when to say it is not enough. In the modern day, we must decide HOW to communicate. Consider the five levels of communication:

Level 1: Message into the Ether

Snail mail and email have a few things in common: They can be of any length, and they are not conversational. Emails and letters are sent out, and then new messages are composed and returned. Sometimes it takes days or weeks before a response arrives. Since emails and letters are not conversational (they lump all points together rather than go point, counterpoint, point, etc…), there is a HIGH LEVEL of misunderstanding with this medium of communication. As many of us know, little issues can escalate over email.

Level 2: Back-and-Forth Messaging

Whether it is via instant message or text, the next level of communication is conversational but still conducted remotely. As points go back and forth, there is a more casual exchange that is also more direct. Misunderstandings are less likely because each message is quick and each participant can detect if they were misunderstood by the reply. However, the bite-size quality of this form of messaging means it’s not well-suited to discussing complex matters.

Level 3: A Verbal Dialog

In a verbal exchange, participants get to voice their opinions and relay a whole new level of data through their inflection. Inflection reveals elements like frustration, annoyance, and stress that are harder to detect in written communication. One major drawback is that verbal discussions often require scheduling. But, as my colleagues can attest, when a customer is upset I believe it is best to just pick up the phone and discuss it!

Level 4: The In-Person Spontaneous Discussion

When something important comes up, you might decide to just drop by a colleague’s desk and start talking. Such spontaneous discussions are often more effective than messages and phone conversations. The benefits of visually seeing each other will add a whole new level of mutual understanding to the discussion. Of course, there are numerous detriments to this level of communication. The fact that others are likely in the vicinity makes it less intimate, and spontaneity doesn’t work for everyone.

Level 5: The In-Person Scheduled Discussion

Planning an in-person discussion allows both participants to think about the topic in advance. The communication that ensues is the most dynamic possible. Inflection and visual cues allow you to gather non-verbal intelligence to ensure clarity. Privacy ensures comfort. Of course, a scheduled discussion doesn’t necessarily mean that it is formal. I will often plan an important conversation to address a concern over breakfast or lunch. What makes this level of communication so sacred is the mutually agreed upon time set aside for direct discussion.

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After understanding the five levels of communication, you can start to decide which level is most appropriate for particular situations. With so many options, it can be easy to choose the path of least resistance rather than focusing on your objective and which level of communication will help you achieve it.
We get in trouble when we chose to communicate the easy way versus the right way. As our channels for communication expand, we must endeavor to be more thoughtful about how and when we communicate. In my research of admired leaders, I have found that communication judgment is an increasingly important factor of success. Knowing what can be done with “Level 2″ communication versus what must be done “Level 5″ is a sign of sound leadership instinct.

How Do You Communicate?

Have you developed any tips for selecting the right level of communication? I’m curious to hear your take on this increasingly relevant dilemma.

More insights on: Collaboration, Email Strategy

Scott Belsky

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Scott Belsky is Adobe's Vice President of Community and Co-Founder & Head of Behance, the leading online platform for creatives to showcase and discover creative work. Scott has been called one of the "100 Most Creative People in Business" by Fast Company, and is the author of the bestselling book, Making ideas Happen.
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