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.