TIB #17: Use 3 levels of communication to connect with anyone

Written by Arno Jansen

Effective communication is about more than talking. Learn the levels of communication to connect with anybody: Subject, Process, and Relationship.

On this page:

A case study

8 year old Stan has trouble reading. He isn’t bad at it, it just takes him longer to understand what he reads. His scores have gone down since his previous test a few months ago. Stan’s dad, Paul, is furious well as intimidating with his 6ft3 inches, standing within 3 ft of Stans teacher, Emma. “How are you going to fix this?”, he roars. “I want to hear a plan, right now!”.

Emma is completely overwhelmed. She utters a few half-sentences: “Well, uhm, I will do more of this, and then focus on that and then make sure we do more exercises together”. 

It is clear that Paul holds Emma responsible for his son’s reading scores. For Emma, this is the first “10 minute, touch base talk” with the parents of her pupils.

She teaches a class of 26.

What was that all about?

That is the question Emma asked herself after Paul had left. And understandably so, this is not how you would expect parent and teacher to discuss the development of a child. Sure, you don’t have to agree on everything all the time, but Emma was terrified by Paul’s attitude. 

As a result, Emma became defensive. Paul forced the response he wanted to hear. But it is unlikely Stan’s scores will improve as a result.

Recognise the resistance

Everybody recognises such situations. Wether you are a teacher or entrepreneur, everybody benefits from good communication skills.

This particular story came up during a training I recently gave to a group of education staff. We used it to practice what we had learned about “effective connection and communication skills” that day. You too know what resistance in communication sounds and feels like, though hopefully not this extreme.

Every time I give a training on communication skills, similar situations comes up. The responses always show a similar outcome: the discussion is about the subject matter, while the real problem is in the relationship.

When asked what Emma’s unfiltered inner voice wanted to say: “Shut up man, act normal!” (or something along those lines, I am translating her response from Dutch). We turned that unfiltered thought into a trigger to raise awareness in the situation that communication is not going well.

Use the 3 levels of communication

When we talk we can connect to others on different levels of communication. According to Brene Brown, “connection” is what happens between people when they both feel heard, seen and appreciated.

Proper communication skills are not just about getting words from one party to another. Effective communication means connecting with others. That happens when we really listen. Not just the words going in one ear and out the other. Connection happens as we hear the words that are used and we see the body language that goes with it. When we are present and pay attention, we communicate on three levels: Relationship, Process, and Subject. 

The Relationship level

In the example above, the connection between Paul and Emma failed on the relationship level. Pauls attitude towards Emma, makes her feel small. It causes them to face each other, as opposed to being should-to-shoulder, to help Stan. They will have to find a way to get along. That does not mean agree on the subject, but it requires safety and trust in one another, that while having different roles and perspectives, both have the same intention: Help Stan improve his reading.

As long as both parties are not willing and able to create that safe (enough) environment and trust the other person (enough), there is no point in discussing the subject at hand.

Pauls posture and tone made it clear something was wrong in the relationship. But, we are not always so fortunate to get such clear feedback. Oftentimes, the signs are more subtle, either in body language or the words used.

Sentences like “I am disappointed that you…” or “I get really nervous when I hear you say…”, are clear indicators that there is work to be done on the relationship level.

Whenever you get a “Oh, shut up!” feeling, that is also a crystal clear indicator that there is room for improvement on the relationship level.

Respect that emotion and give it space to exist. Find a way to express your emotion or address that of the other person and you will notice that a lot of the resistance will vanish almost immediately. Trust and safety can be increased by acknowledging to each other that each person has different viewpoints, roles, responsibilities, and emotions, while also stating the intention of the discussion.

The Proces level

Communicating on the process level basically means asking yourself if this is the right place, time and person to have this discussion with. In the example above, the “10 minute touch base talk” is the right place and time to discuss it. Emma is Stan’s teacher, so she is also the right person to talk to.

Had Paul been super friendly and approached Emma in the school yard when he dropped off Stan, it would not have been the right place and time to have that discussion.

As entrepreneurs, if we are talking to clients about our product or service we want to sell, we need to talk to the right person. This is especially important if the (potential) user of our product or service is not the same as the person who makes the buying decision.

There are many reasons why it is not convenient or pleasant for someone to go into the content there and then. Perhaps ranks, roles, or responsibilities get in the way. Sometimes, integrity can be a reason to not discuss a subject at that moment.

The Subject matter level

When all is well on the relationship and process levels, discussing subject matter becomes a lot easier.

Be aware of your personal preference

Picking up on the right signals can be tricky. Recognising the levels of communication as they are happening requires you to both be part of the communication as well as “observe” it with distance.

If you are a straight shooter and don’t care for all that unnecessary soft stuff like feelings and emotions, it is easy to miss signals on relationship level. If you get a rash just thinking about protocols, rules and hierarchy, you can easily miss the connection on process level.

It goes the other way too: if your personal preference is to have support and prefer agreeing on things, you may focus (unconsciously) on communication on the relationship level. This can mean you are missing signals on the other levels. It also means you may not get the best outcome, because you are focussed on avoiding confrontation or disagreement.

Knowing these things about yourself means you can do something about it. Be on high alert, be aware. Practice that awareness in conversations. In most conversations, at least two of the levels of communication are happening at the same time.


“I’m disappointed that you did not keep our promise

The subject matter of this sentence is about a promise that was not kept. But the fact that the person saying this, starts with “I am bummed” is a clear indication that the relationship is more important to him or her.

Your e-mail made me anxious”

Anxious is the word indicating that we are dealing with emotions. By addressing it, you can dig deeper and find out what caused the anxiousness exactly. Be aware that you are not necessarily responsible for resolving the angst. But, if you have to work on something with this person, it is at least good to know what it was in your message that caused the anxiety.

How to apply this in your own conversations?

If you have not been looking at conversations in this way, it can be difficult to notice on what level you need to connect while having a conversation in real time. There are a few ways to practise it though:

Role play

Role play: This is the way I practise conversations with coaching clients if they want. You can practise with just about anybody who is willing to do it with you. The other person does not need to know exactly how it all works, just dream up a scenario to practise. For example: a disgruntled customer who want his/her money back because he/she feels scammed by you. Describe a situation (location, time, environment) and topic to discuss and go to town. You can even record the conversation and listen back for further analysis.

Scenario thinking

When you are dreading a conversation you know is coming, prepare by describing a few situations beforehand. If you are not looking forward to the conversation, ask yourself why your are dreading it. That gives a clue already about your gut feeling. And that gut feeling provides insight into what it is you don’t like: have you made a mistake, do you know the other person to be very personal and verbally aggressive, etc.

Look for possible clues in your gut. You know that feeling when you dread an upcoming conversation or appointment. Write out a few scenarios of how you and the other person may respond. That way you can set up ‘markers’ for you to look out for that indicate whether the possible resistance is on the relationship-, process- or subject level.

Hope this helps you improve your communication skills and thus your relationships. Please let me know if this was useful to you. And please share tips from your own experience, so that we can all benefit from it!

Looking to get more productive, focused, and resilient?

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    Looking to get more productive, focused, and resilient?

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