In yesterday’s post, I mentioned the 5 levels of communication, and suddenly realized I had not yet written a post about them. So, that’s what I’m going to do today.
The 5 levels of communication are not something I can take credit for. In fact, they’re used so widely, I’m not sure who first codified them. However, there are still many people who don’t know what they are, but it’s something that can be quite helpful when trying to move communication in your marriage to the next level.
With each subsequent level, there is the potential for more growth. More deepness, more intimacy. But, of course, the only way to be more intimate is to be more vulnerable. So, with each level also comes an increased risk. You put more and more of yourself out there to be judged, to be ridiculed, to have used against you, to be hurt. That’s how intimacy works. The only way to really build intimacy is to be more vulnerable together.
So, let’s start with the bottom, the most simplistic of communication, with almost no risk and very little gains.
Level 1: Sharing Cliches and Superficiality
This level is very shallow. In fact, you can communicate on this level with almost anyone. These are the “Hi, how are you?” questions that you ask when passing in the hall, not really waiting for the answer. It’s the “Horrible weather we’re having, isn’t it?” you say when in the elevator with a stranger. It doesn’t really share anything. You offer nothing of yourself and you expect nothing in return. You’re just following the society programmed niceties that are expected in this situation.
Level 2: Sharing Information
One step above, we have information sharing. This is where most of us live at work. Reporting facts and figures to colleagues, sharing product information with customers, getting payment information from clients. Sending order details to supplies.
And a lot of necessary communication in marriage lives here too. Managing a family, even of two people, requires syncing schedules, discussing finances, and the typical logistical discussions.
There’s slightly more risk. You can make a mistake in your figures, you can give a wrong date or time. But really, you’re not risking anything here. There’s not much of yourself in this level. It’s logistics, it’s facts and figures. Easily separated from, and thus having little risk personally.
The problem is that in a lot of marriages, this is where communication stops. It becomes only Level 1 & 2. You say “Hi” in the hallway, you make sure your spouse is coming to your kids functions, you ask “what’s for dinner” and make sure your spouse knows the tank is empty in the car.
But to have a relationship that’s more than just housemates, you need to progress beyond this.
Level 3: Sharing Ideas & Opinions
Now we start stepping out a bit. When we share ideas and opinions, we start to share a bit of who we are. What we’re thinking. We’re not just sharing our calculator or our calendar, but we’re sharing something we’ve created: a thought.
And with that comes greater risk, because now someone can disagree with something which is uniquely ‘us’.
This level comes into play when asked “What do you want for dinner”, because now you have to share an opinion. It comes up when you share a new strategy in a business meeting. When you suggest a plan of action to your boss. When you tell your spouse where you want to take your next vacation. When you talk about politics, it comes up when you declare support for one candidate or another.
This is how you get to know about people. Before this level, you may be able to gauge their skills, their schedule, and things like that, but not really who they are. This is where relationships really start forming. But, relationships that stay at this level never become more than acquaintances really.
Level 4: Sharing Values & Feelings
And so we progress to level 4. Now it gets scary. We’re sharing what we feel. What drives us. Our hopes and our dreams. This is where you start to become friends. You’re really stepping out of the safe zone now. Because our values and feelings can be used to hurt us. When someone knows that something is important to us, they could potentially use it as leverage against us.
But, it also lets them know more about who we really are. What keeps us going. What we’re fighting for in life. What we care about. But also how life is affecting us. Now we can share the state of our very self. When your spouse asks “You seem upset, what’s wrong?” they’re looking for level 4 communication. For you to share what you’re feeling. When you say “I love you”. that’s a level 4 communication, unless it’s become a cliche…then you’re back to level 1.
For example. I recently got a job offer for more money, closer to home. All the facts and figures said I should take the job, and if I couldn’t convey my feelings and values about it to my wife, it would have damaged our relationship for me not to take it. But, because we could sit down and have a conversation about why I felt I needed to stay where I was. The values that were driving me to choose not to change jobs, she understood and even supported me.
In fact, I turned around and told my boss about the offer, letting him know why I was staying and that this wasn’t a bargaining tactic, but that I wanted to make staying where I was work better for the both of us, he appreciated that level of communication as well.
I’d say the vast majority of marriages get to this point. Some don’t stay here, some retreat back to level 3 or even 2 when they stop being intentional about their marriage, but most manage this level of communication, if only infrequently. But the next one is one of the ingredients that makes a great marriage.
Level 5: Sharing Intimacy & Confession
This is where it gets scary. Now you start sharing the deepest part of who you are. This is a level most reserve for only God…and often He doesn’t even get it.
This is where we start really being intimate. To share what we’ve done wrong, as well as the amazing things in our life. This is where we really take a risk.
To me, nothing exemplifies this more than a husband or wife admitting infidelity to their spouse. I’m not suggesting you go our and be unfaithful to achieve this, but those that have, and told their spouse, they face a huge risk. They share their confession, knowing it might end the relationship, but hoping to make it stronger in the end.
In my own life, I experienced this most when I confessed my porn addiction to my wife. I actually did it in a letter, because I didn’t think I could get all the words out. It was hard. The most difficult thing I’ve done in my life, I think. At the end, I wrote something to the effect of “I understand if you never want to talk to me again.” I hoped that wouldn’t happen, but I knew it was a possibility. People have divorced for less.
Thank be to God, and my wife, she wisely answered in the best way possible. She said something like “You’ve just been more open with me than ever before. Let’s go have some really good sex.” Then she took my hand and pulled me to the bedroom. That is the risk and the reward of intimacy. Not sex…but something more.
It doesn’t always need to be confession. Also from our marriage, I remember when my wife vowed to me never to say no to sex again. It wasn’t a confession, that had happened quite a bit earlier. This was a vow. Something that was important to her, and she wanted me to know it. She could have just as easily kept it to herself and lessened the risk, but she decided to be vulnerable and step out and communicate that to me.
I’ll admit, I didn’t handle it as well as she did. To my shame, I laughed in disbelief and … something else. Amazement I think. I didn’t know how to handle it. We’d gone from sexless to “I promise never to say no”, and I think I was in shock. I should have handled it better. I was an idiot. Learn from my mistakes.
But, still, this event was pivotal to our marriage, and not only the decision on her part, but the communication of it.
That’s what Level 5 Communication is like: being completely open and honest, more than honest. Sharing the deepest, scariest parts of you, knowing the risk and still deciding to be vulnerable.
You don’t need to follow the levels as steps
Personally, I like to escalate levels quickly. When people say “Hi, how’s it going?” expecting a “Fine, you?”, I like to tell them how I’m really doing. “I’m exhausted, because I took a new job recently, and it’s honestly a bit difficult to adjust to. Thanks for asking, how are you doing?” and then I actually wait for a response. Usually people are a bit stunned at first. They weren’t expecting that. But, you know what? I don’t have time for idle chit-chat. I have things to do. If I’m not getting anything out of the conversation and neither are you, then we’re wasting both of our times. However, if I can jump a level (or three) and start building a relationship … well, that’s worth something.
Anyways, now you know the 5 communication levels. Which ones are you using in your marriage? If you’re heavily weighted in 1 and 3, but barely touching 3 and 4…it’s time to start to communicate more about who you are, and less about what you’re doing. If you can learn to do that, level 5 will come, if you’re willing to put yourself out there.
7 thoughts on “The 5 Levels of Communication”
Unfortunately, communication requires two people to be successful. When one person uses all five levels of communication and the other doesn’t, all it does is lead to ever increasing hurt for the one who is communicating.
Right from the start, my marriage has been little more than housemates. Not by my choice at all. I have spent the last three and a half years pouring out my heart and soul into my marriage – emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually – and I can’t even get the level 1 communication, polite small talk, from my husband.
He won’t share his opinions and thoughts with me on anything. Even something as simple as asking him “what do you think we should have for dinner”, he’ll either act like I haven’t even spoken or tell me what he’ll be having for dinner (ie, just him, not the rest of the family – even if I’ve just told I’m in too much to stand, let alone cook dinner, he’ll make himself something and let the rest of us go without, and then wonder why our teenager does the same) or he’ll get angry and start ranting about how he doesn’t know, whatever he picks will be wrong, that he’s a bad person etc. A whole bunch of paranoid stuff that I don’t even know where it comes from. That pretty much sums anything he’s asked for his opinion on – he’ll pretend he hasn’t heard it, or he’ll only think about his own desires (and not the rest of the family’s needs) or he’ll imagine it’s some kind of trick question and get paranoid and angry for having his opinion asked.
And there is no reason for it. I’ve always, our entire relationship, been supportive of his thoughts and opinions. I mean actually going out of my way to praise him for opening up, telling him his opinions and thoughts are great even when they are only pretty average. Anything at all I can say or do to encourage him to open up and talk. We’re talked about it in marriage counselling over and over. He will eventually admit to the counsellor that there is no past history of me ever having not been supportive and encouraging of him sharing his thoughts and opinions but then will insist that if he does open up and say what he is really thinking that I will “make fun of him” – and the fact that the counsellors and I constantly reassuring him that it has never happened and therefore logically there is no reason to think it will happen in the future – he still insists it will.
His family have never been anything other than completely supportive of his thoughts and opinions (even when they know what he is thinking/doing is sinful and wrongful, they will still let him think they are in full support of him as claim he won’t listen to them and will just ignore them and/or get angry if they disagree with his opinion, no matter how politely). He’s never had any bad friends, and even at school, suffered very little teasing for his unusual opinions and behaviours because he went to a very good, genuinely christian school where everyone was accepting.
So no one can understand why he won’t open up to anyone. And I can’t understand why he constantly puts down my thoughts and opinions, treats me like as if I’m stupid compared to him. It hurts beyond measure because I have abusive parents who have spent my whole life putting me down. My parents are the type of people who put me down for a decade after I graduated high school because I only graduated top of my school (150 students in my graduating class) and didn’t graduate top of the entire state.
And yet I still take the risk of communication. I share my thoughts and opinions on things that matter to me. I share values and feelings. I share emotional intimacy. But just like physical intimacy, he shuts me down. I don’t even get level 1 and 2 communication. He doesn’t believe in small talk, so there is no sharing of cliches and superficiality. If I ask him how his day at work was, I get a grunt in reply. In our entire marriage he has never asked me how my day was. He has never asked “how are you”. And as for sharing information, he goes out of his way to not tell me information. A simple “will you finish work in time to pick up your youngest from childcare” will be answered with “maybe, whatever” even when I try to explain I’ve got something important scheduled and his work is a job where he chooses when his starting and finishing times are. Or if I ask him what our financial situation is, because it’s something I have to report to the government each fortnight to get welfare assistance until I’m well enough to work (or until he decides to work full time) I’ll just told it’s none of my business and that merely asking him is “showing I don’t trust him” and “accusing him of not being trustworthy to manage our money”. Everything from our finances, to his health problems [which he won’t deal with], what he does online [despite being caught out being a porn user], etc, I always get met with “none of your business”.
I can’t get through to him that 1. I need to know these things, I’m not asking them just for the sake of knowing – I have various people like welfare, tax office, etc chasing ME for the details of our finances. 2. asking him for this information isn’t a sign I don’t trust him, 3. I need to know if for no other reason than if something were to happen, the kids and I would be very screwed – everything like the house, “our” savings, the utility bills, insurance policies etc, are all entirely in his name. If he were to die, I wouldn’t know what he even had, let alone be able to access any of it. 4. These things are my business because they effect me. Our financial situation effects me greatly – I’m the one going without basic necessities due to lack of finances not him. The kids ad I are the ones paying the price of his untreated health problem – I’m paying for it physically as one of the effects he has is severe sleep apnoea, and even when he is at the opposite end of the house with the door shut, his snoring still keeps me awake, I’m paying for it emotionally with his mood swings and outbursts, I’m paying for it finacially because he’s too exhausted to work. But he still continues to tell me simple things (eg the results of a blood test he had so I can see if he’s eligible for free treatment at my old workplace when he is claiming the only reason he won’t get treatment is the cost) are none of my business.
I’ve tried explaining it to him if he thought all these things were none of my business, why did he get married as spouses are supposed to share everything (other than third parties’ secret – that’s a little different. Both my husband I work in industries where client confidentiality is a huge thing and I would never ask him to tell me information about his clients). But he insists that he doesn’t have to tell me anything about his own personal life, even if it effects me, and he just won’t agree that things like our finances and his health problems effect me. I’ve also tried explaining to him that if spouses can keep this information secret, then why does he grill me about every last cent I have, and about my medical stuff – right down to horribly embarrassing little details I haven’t even shared with my doctors as they are far too personal and embarrassing. His excuse is that if I want money for things, then I need to justify every last cent I ask of him (and then often he says no unless he deems it worthy eg yesterday I asked for $10 to buy stationery I said I needed to buy – he demanded to know exactly what the items were, and he still wouldn’t let me buy it until I explained it was for our daughter for school and why she needed each particular item.
Our communication is a one way street. Me being open and intimate despite being constantly put down and mocked, made to beg for things and still even usually shut down after begging. While he is a completely closed book who accuses me of spying/ prying/ not trusting him etc for simply even trying to make conversation with him. I don’t even get social niceties from him as he thinks social niceties are a waste of time (and to be honest, having watched him in social situations, he doesn’t seem to understand social etiquette at all, and offends a lot of people by unintentionally being very rude). Basically he long ago decided social etiquette was a waste of time and effort so he has not learned any etiquette.
I don’t know, as I sit here, I feel physically ill. I’d like to cry but I’ve had too many nights awake all night crying, that the tears ran out long ago.
People talk about marriages where the couple are little more than housemates. For some time now, I’ve described our marriage as housemates who have sex a few times a year, but I realised recently our marriage isn’t even that. I’ve lived in shared houses before. I’ve always had more conversation, more interaction, more concern and caring, from housemates (even the ones who turned out to be really dodgy) than I do from my husband. I’ve even had more openness and sharing of finances with housemates than I do from my husband.
My husband only has two communications modes with me – totally ignoring me and pretending I don’t exist, or anger outbursts where he yells and swears at me and accuses me of all kind of things he’s imagined in paranoia. I think I will go have that cry now.
I hope you have found a way to leave him. It seems that he is abusing you very very badly. My heart broke reading your story. You deserve so much better ❤
I know these levels, but I did not know they were codified. I am going to use this and share it with others. Thanks, Mike
You’re quite welcome.
Really great post JayDee. I didn’t really know about these different levels of communication.
Glad you liked it!
Hi Jay Dee
Is there anymore information available on these 5 levels? They really make sense ?