Levels of human communication

Most human communication falls in the following five categories.

  • Social Acknowledgement

For example, I say “How are you?” and you say “Fine”. We acknowledge each other’s existence, which helps, but share no real information. (It would take at least an hour to answer the question “How are you?”, if it were a serious question!)

  • Giving or exchanging information

Information is facts or uncontroversial opinions, with no or very little emotional content. This is easy to give and receive.

  • Judgmental and/or critical

Blaming, attacking, criticising and putting down are all judgmental and/or critical. They are very easy to give and are often done without thinking. They are very difficult to receive constructively and often lead to a defensive or negative reaction.

  • Sharing feelings

Describing how you feel honestly and openly without blaming or attacking anyone. This can feel very difficult, even frightening as it leaves you feeling vulnerable. It can be disarming and is especially useful in the aftermath of a criticism. (See the fable below)

  • Solving Problems

This requires people to be willing to share their skills, experience and resources to solve problems and thus make their lives, families, work, teams or organisations happier or more effective. It is very difficult to do when you are feeling bad.

A fable – this does have some sex-role stereotyping, but it is as I heard it and it is meant affectionately!

A woman goes to the shops and buys a hat. She comes home and says to her husband, who has had a rotten day, “Look dear, I bought this lovely hat, doesn’t it look wonderful!”

Husband says, grumpily, “Hmm, I don’t think much of it, it makes you look frumpy AND I bet it cost a fortune!!”

Wife says nothing, but you can imagine how she feels!

Half an hour later, he says to her, “Look at this, they are doing some really nice packages to Barbados. I have got two weeks due to me next month, shall we go?”

She says, “I like the sound of Barbados, and I could find the time, but I am certainly not going with you!”

Why did she say this? Given her husband criticised her for buying the hat, what could she have done differently afterwards?

Unexpressed feelings can block serious work. A management and union negotiation was “hopelessly” blocked until people on both sides just said a few words about how frustrated they felt. They made more progress in the two hours after this than in the previous three months. I have also seen a blocked IT project move forward very quickly after people said how they felt. This simple idea usually works.

(I learned the model at a marriage enrichment retreat but don’t know who is the author).


If you would like help using this idea, or have any comments or questions please contact me. Thanks, Nick