“One learns peoples through the heart, not the eyes or the intellect.” — Mark Twain
If you have a mental model for communication, then you can move your way up the communication stack more effectively. You can also avoid more communication conflict. You can also work on your communication skills more effectively. That’s the true power of a simple model.
I was flipping through my old interpersonal skills book from college to find a simple model. It’s a great book, the research is sound, but I found the model a little more complicated than what I wanted to share.
Instead, I’ll simply share how we tend to practice the different levels of communication in the halls of Microsoft. I’ll simply call out the five levels that are easy to observe and actually put your finger on. They are easy to identify because it’s where great leaders poke and prod to figure out where things are in terms of understanding, agreement, and action.
If you can see it, you can change it. Here is a simple mental model for communication.
The 5 Levels of Communication
Here are the five levels that are easy to observe in practice:
- Level 1. Sending.
- Level 2. Receiving.
- Level 3. Understanding.
- Level 4. Agreement.
- Level 5. Action.
While there is overlap, and in real-life things are rarely that sequential, you can broadly think of it in terms of moving up the stack from sending and receiving messages, to understanding, then upward toward agreement, and finally action.
Communicating Your Way Up the Communication Stack
If you know the levels, then you can easily start to troubleshoot where things are broken down, or where you need to improve. Here are some notes and insights for the different levels.
- Level 1. Sending. At this level, you simply send, transmit, or share your message. Whether this is an email, or a face-to-face conversation, you simply sent our message. Just because you sent your message, doesn’t mean it was heard, read, or understood. Where some people fail is they send emails or give our orders and think that was communicating. If you don’t care about whether your message lands, or whether you have buy in, or if there are any concerns, then stopping here makes perfect sense. If, on the other hand, you do care that the recipient heard you or read your message, understands what you want or mean, and leads to some sort of agreement or action, and has a level of buy in, then you have more work to do.
- Level 2. Receiving. This is where the message is received. This is where an acknowledgement helps. As the sender, you can ask whether they read your message, or if it’s face-to-face, you can ask them to play back what they heard.
- Level 3. Understanding. This is where a lot of communication conflict or breakdowns happen. You don’t have to agree at this stage. What’s important is to first make sure the message is understood. If you are the sender, then this is where you want to really check that your message is understood through playback. You can simply ask the receiver to play back what they heard. What you said, may not be what they heard. If you are the receiver and you want to practice your empathic listening skills, this is a great place to say, “What I hear you saying is …”, and check that you heard the message as it was intended. This is also a great place to get any concerns on the table. It’s also a great place to hear both sides, if there is more than one side. Often there might seem like there are multiple sides, but often this is just different perspectives. This is when people talk past each other. A simple rule of thumb here from a Covey standpoint is, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
- Level 4. Agreement. This is a perfect place to practice everything you’ve learned about playing well with others. It’s the perfect place to focus on wants, needs, and concerns. From a Covey standpoint, it’s a perfect place to seek the “win win”, or find “the 3rd alternative.” From a John Wooden standpoint, it’s the perfect place to “agree to disagree”, if need be, and just because you don’t agree, does not mean you have to be disagreeable.
- Level 5. Action. This is a great outcome for great communication. It leads to some sort of action or decision. This is a spectrum of action from “now is not the time” to “who does what when” with increasing clarity. Sometimes the best action simply is a decision that both parties agree to.
You can use the five levels of communication to troubleshoot your communication skills.
Best Books on Communication Skills
Here are some relevant book recommendations you can use to help you master your communication skills:
- Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler
- Crucial Confrontations, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler
- Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst , by Dr. Rick Brinkman and Dr. Rick Kirschner