The Four Levels Of Communication

“Never say ‘I understand’ until you really do.”
Jeff Thull, sales trainer

Have you ever had someone say … in response to your comment … “I understand” … and you were quite sure they didn’t? Of course you have.

How did you FEEL at that moment? Most likely, not very good. Something was probably screaming inside you, saying “No, you don’t,” because you knew they were simply throwing out a cliché. They didn’t really understand you.

Unless you realize there are four levels of communication, and until you know how to take people through those four levels, your conversations at work and at home will be littered with misunderstandings. And that is not acceptable — if you want your team to function well, if you want your customer service to shine, and if you want your relationships to work.

So let’s take a quick look at those four levels. (P.S. If you want an in-depth explanation and if you want to learn all the skills that go with each level, I suggest you attend my “Journey to the Extraordinary” experience … which has a lot more time to deal with the issue than a brief tip could ever do.)

1. Cliché Level

This is the most superficial level of conversation and is limited to unimportant chit-chat. It includes comments such as: “How are you? … Some weather out there … See you around … and … Take care.”

This level of communication may feel safe because nothing is ever said that could be offensive. The problem is … nothing is ever said that could be useful. If, for example, you are a salesperson talking to prospective customer, and if you stay on this level of communication, you miss an opportunity to understand your prospect’s problem and help her solve it.

You see this take place at restaurants everywhere. The server will come by after you have begun eating and ask “How is everything?” The typical customer responds with a cliché — “Everything is fine.” And the typical customer says everything is fine whether or not it is. If the food isn’t “fine” but “not bad enough to send back,” he simply decides … privately … that he’ll never come back to that restaurant again.

The server has failed to learn some very important information and the restaurant has lost a customer. But that’s not all. The customer loses as well … because he’s had an unsatisfactory experience and may even feel like he wasted his money.

So if you’re hoping to build better relationships on and off the job, the cliché level won’t do it for you. A little deeper communication would be the…

2. Fact Level

On this level, some basic information is shared. For example, if I was talking to you over the phone and asked “How’s the weather at your end?” and you replied “Great,” you would be giving me a cliché. But if you said “It’s 73 degrees,” you would be giving me a fact.

Facts can be useful. If you’re in the customer service business, you may talk about the features of your product or service. Those may be useful facts for the prospective customer. If you’re trying to build your team, you may work on getting more acquainted with each other by sharing some information about your family, your schooling, and your hobbies. Those are useful facts so the team members start to “feel like they know each other.”

Most of the time, the fact level of communication is fairly comfortable and nonthreatening. In a sales situation, the customer doesn’t feel “too high pressured,” and the salesperson learns a few things that will help him/her take the conversation a bit further.

Just be careful. DON’T read too much into the facts.

Suppose one of your friends said, “When I was a kid, my Dad did some things that scared me. Can you relate to that?” And suppose you answered, “Yes, I understand. I can relate to that.” Do you REALLY understand or just think you do?

Let’s say your friend went on to say, “My Dad was a coal miner from early in the morning until late in the afternoon, six days a week, for 23 years. When he finished his shift, he and his buddies would all go to the bar, drink until midnight, and then he would come home drunk. Of course, I would be asleep, but he would pull me by the hair, wake me up, and shoot an unloaded pistol at my head. That scared me.”

Is that what you had in mind when you said you could “relate” to your friend? I doubt it. That’s why Jeff Thull is so right when he says, “Never say ‘I understand’ until you really do.”

Even if you’re communicating on the fact level, there is so much more you need to understand for the communication to be highly effective. You need to get to the third level or beyond.

3. Opinion Level

This is where you to start make sense of the facts. In other words, you talk about what the facts mean to you or the other person.

If I ask you “How’s business?” and you say “Okay,” you’ve given me a cliché answer. If you answer “Our sales are up by 14% over last year at this time,” you’ve given me a fact.

But if I probe a little bit and ask “What do you think of that 14% increase?” I start to get to the real meaning. If you tell me what you think about that, if you give me your opinion and say “I think a 14% increase is okay, but it doesn’t seem that great when I know my competitors are up by 27%,” I’ll have a much fuller understanding.

In one group I was attending, the people shared the “fact” they had children, and then some people shared their “opinions” on children. I’m sure you can see the difference. The people said such things as:

*Grandchildren are God’s reward for not killing your children.

*Mothers of teens know why some animals eat their young.

*Children seldom misquote you. In fact, they usually repeat word for word what you shouldn’t have said.

*The main purpose of holding children’s parties is to remind yourself that there are children more awful than your own.

*We childproofed our home 3 years ago and they’re still getting in!

*Be nice to your kids. They’ll choose your nursing home.

Obviously, opinions are better than pure old facts all by themselves, but your clearest, deepest, most helpful communication will take place on the …

4. Feeling Level

This is where emotions are shared. This is where you tell someone how the “facts” have affected you personally. And until someone knows your feelings, he/she doesn’t really know you.

For example, you and I could be coworkers, and I might know you have a high I.Q. That would be a fact. I may THINK you’re capable of achieving so much more in life. That would be my opinion. But you wouldn’t know me until I shared my feelings about that fact and that opinion.

I may THINK you’re capable of achieving so much more, and I may FEEL sorry for you. Or I may FEEL challenged to motivate you. I may FEEL concerned about your apparent burnout. I may FEEL relieved that you aren’t outshining me on the job. I may FEEL delighted to have a coworker in the same rut I’m in. Or I may FEEL a hundred other things.

When I share my feelings, you get to know me. We’ve reached the level of genuine communication. And the same is true of you and every relationship you have. When you share your feelings with someone and he shares his feelings with you, it is then … and only then … that you get to know each other.

So don’t get all creeped-out when someone shares their feelings. Indeed, if one of your coworkers or customers shares their feelings of delight, disappointment, anger, frustration, or anticipation, they’re essentially saying they trust you. They feel safe enough to open up and share some very important as well as some very personal information.

Unfortunately, as noted in the book “Exceptional Selling” by Thull, “Only a small percentage of people are naturally open to expressing their feelings. Another small percentage will open up if given the opportunity. The rest need to be gradually led to talk about what they feel.”

That’s done through the art of questioning. And you can learn to do that just like you learned about the four levels of communication.

Action:  On which level of communication do you spend most of your time … at work … at home? And where do you need to spend more time?