The Five Levels of Communication

Ed Batista’s 5 Levels of Communication is a fascinating model of human interaction. He was inspired by Richard Francisco’s Five Levels of Communication (which comprises Chapter 2.6 of the Reading Book for Human Relations Training, the 8th edition.).

Nonetheless, the model is worth a study, particularly if you’re a leader. The version below is my take on the model as I’ve been experimenting with it since 2018. I highly recommend you check out Ed’s post for his insights, which are much more profound than mine, given that I’ve only been using it consciously for the last couple of years.

So, here we go!

Level 1: Ritual
It’s the most basic form of communication. Small talk, greetings, goodbyes, and nods in recognition/acknowledgement are all part of this level. It’s the foundation of all the levels that follow and allows people to feel a sense of safety, security, and well-being.

Level 2: Extended Ritual
Practising Level 1, with the same people over time, extends the way you communicate. The small talks transition to casual conversations that are “safe” to discuss, such as the weather or the latest sporting event. Non-parliamentary stuff — politics, sex, race, or religion — doesn’t have a place at this level. Of course, this is still small talk but better.

Level 3: Content (or Surface)
Most professional interactions, including giving, receiving, sharing information (related to work), analysing projects, information, or solving problems, take place at this level. People also talk about themselves in a highly moderated manner. Essentially, you’re going from “how’s it going” to “oh, tell me more.” I see this level as “all talk, no action.”

Level 4: Feelings About Content
When things get serious, more likely than not, emotions are involved. (True for both personal and professional contexts). I don’t think humans are capable of effective decision making without invoking their reasoning or emotional faculties. And ignoring one’s reason or emotions means that they’re essentially stuck in a loop — Level 3, where there’s a lot of talk but no action, so, no resolution.

Of course, you can’t talk about feelings if you don’t trust or feel safe with the other person. That’s foundational and precisely why we have Levels 1, 2, and 3. You can’t skip those levels to have a Level 4 conversation. You’ve got to work your way up to qualify.

Some people believe that getting emotional in the workplace isn’t professional. I think somebody should fire these people! We can’t possibly leave our logic, emotions and reasoning at the door. But we sure can leave our egos at the door.

Level 5: Feelings About Each Other
It’s the most powerful, yet the most difficult of all levels in this model. Yet, this is where personal, professional, and organisational transformations happen.

The best leaders and coaches struggle now and then as this is where we share our feelings about each other.

Can you imagine the level of trust that’s needed to get to this level? A lot. And even if you are at that level, there will be times when people won’t take your feedback well. That’s okay because it’s an opportunity for you to engage in a dialogue; which, requires you to have worked through the previous four levels.

One of the significant drawbacks of this level is that most people never get to it, and hence, they never get a chance to practice the skills necessary to excel at it. As a coach, I’m grateful to get adequate practice at this level, but I have to work my way up to this level, each time.

Having an understanding of The 5 Levels of Communication has helped me immensely on how relationships work, both professionally and personally. If you’re a high performing leader, this isn’t a model you should live without. Embrace it, implement it, and see your relationships transform.

So, if you’re a manager finding it challenging to communicate effectively, think about the level you’re communicating. If you’re at Level 5 and didn’t bother to go through the other levels, you’ve got a lot of work at hand. Skipping the steps isn’t an option. You’ve got to go through them to be able to communicate effectively.

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