Communication: The Five Levels

Good morning!

“What do you mean?” he said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”

This is Gandalf from the beginning of J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit.  We can probably agree it is a silly reply.  Nobody says good morning as anything but a greeting.  At least not in Hobbiton.  So understandably Bilbo Baggins is suspicious.  This tall pointy-hatted stranger can’t be up to any good since he so breaches the norms – the norm being just to say “Good morning” back.

It is, however, no different when we say “How are you?”  How would anybody in their right mind answer anything but “Fine, thanks, how are you?”

Well, people who believe that “how – are – you ?” means we want to know how they are.  Which, considering the words, is not a farfetched conclusion, is it?

But it does break our rules.

We can call these verbal exchanges for ritual language.  They are the most simplistic form of communication, the Level 1.  OK, they may not be quite simple, as Gandalf illustrates, but within our “tribe” we generally adhere to the prescribed form and get surprised (and often a little annoyed) when somebody “goes off script”.  Suddenly we have to engage more brainpower than we anticipated.

A big part of regular communication takes place as exchange of formalities.  The niceties shared at the checkout line are rarely personal:  “Have a nice day” may follow you out even when the shopping consists of Kleenex, cough syrup, Ibuprofen, and chicken soup.

The officer at the immigration desk says the same things to most people during his whole watch and they answer more or less the same things back.

“Stop by when you are in the area” or “let’s have coffee sometime” are friendly ways to send people along without committing to anything.

In Level 2 we have a conversation.  It is a small talk conversation.  A little bit of disclosure of our interests may show up: if I had no interest in sports, it would make little sense for me to ask if you saw the game last night.

An Indian friend started his U.S. small talk by asking whether people watched the show, Seinfeld.  He used Seinfeld as part of his education into American culture.  It gave him not only a harmless subject to talk about; he also learned how people thought about whatever topic had been at the center of any recent episode.  Good for him that he immigrated so long ago that people more often than not had watched some of the same harmless shows.  Asking if you watched Trevor Noah or Sean Hannity might carry very different connotations.

Level 2 is the garden party or the networking variety of conversation.  The weather is always a fall back subject.  As is “how are you connected with the host/ organization/company…?”

But in case you are not aware, many people really don’t like “What do you do for a living?” 

There is nothing wrong with Level 2 communication.  When I go shopping and the employee at check-out venture into Level 2 small talk rather than use Level 1 rituals, I feel much more seen and want to shop there again.  How do you feel?

Level 3 is about content; clearing up logistics.  Remember your appointment on Tuesday.  Grandma called about Thanksgiving.  Can you please swing by the store and pick up Kleenex, cough syrup, and chicken soup?

At work it is similar.  A status report on the project.  You are not available Tuesday afternoon and have to reschedule.  A confirmation that the customer has been taken care of.

We could spend our whole day oscillating between Levels 1, 2 and 3 and be very productive.

While there can be mutual problem solving, the communication so far doesn’t include much about feelings.  Feelings are for when we reach Level 4.

Here we share feelings about a suggestion, a thing, a place, an idea, an event, and eventually about ourselves and other people.

My comment on feeling seen when shopping is Level 4.  Now you know a little more about what can bring me small moments of joy.  (Not following the norm can also be positively beating expectations.)

At Level 4, although the story you tell may be personal, it normally doesn’t involve the person you are talking to.  It is “there and then”; something that happened in another time in another place – usually with other people:  You are doubtful about a suggestion because in another job you tried something similar and it went not well.  You are enthusiastic about a new client.  You are tired of Zoom meetings.  You felt inspired by a Bizcatalyst article.

Talking about “there and then” and sharing feelings can lead to a very deep conversation. Your typical psychotherapist will not tell you how they feel about you and you probably don’t tell the therapist how you feel about them.  But, never the less, lots of feelings are discussed.

Level 4 conversations don’t just happen.  But they can happen if somebody models this kind of disclosure.  We can build a safe container through openness about intent motivation and by being more personal in our Level 1-3 conversations.  Reveal that you are not available Tuesday afternoon because of a root canal and you have already built a little more safety for others.  They may even voice compassion for you – and thus we enter Level 5.

At Level 5 we say what we feel about what is happening with the person in front of us. Needless to say, Level 5 can be tricky because many people don’t want to know how we feel about them unless it is 9-10 on a 10 point scale.  We deflect criticizing, usually by either saying something good before we say something not so good, or we can give the feedback to the doing rather than to the being with “eyes on the ball, not on the player”.

Wrapping our criticism in compliments into a “feedback sandwich” has become so ubiquitous that many people can’t hear professional praise without listening for the expected critique to follow.

Sadly, we have in an almost Pavlovian way polluted positive feedback so people can no longer fully enjoy it.  Perhaps we should stop making these sandwiches?  If we dole out thanks, recognition, and praise generously and frequently, people may be more open to also hearing our more “constructive” opinions.

Sharing our feelings doesn’t mean that Bilbo should have said “You jerk, get out of my face.”  While Gandalf may have behaved jerkishly, this is not very informative, it doesn’t move the conversation forward, and it doesn’t help him become less of a jerk.  Instead, Bilbo could have “kept the eyes on the ball” and said, “When you dissected my Good Morning I felt angry and offended because I thought you were mocking me.”  This would give Gandalf a better platform from which to respond and he could choose to repair the relationship when he learned that Bilbo was upset and why.

Your colleague might say “I was annoyed that you wanted to move the meeting but now I am happy it is not me going to the dentist. Best of luck.”  All it took was saying why you had to reschedule – sharing your motivation.


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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  1. Spectacular Charlotte! Growing in communication ability is a life-long work. I appreciate your anecdotes. Demonstrating how sharing a bit of ourselves is connecting. Simply giving insight into our motivation does indeed allow people to step beyond the content of a moment into the process of being in relationship. Human to human. Imperfect moments connecting imperfect humans. Versus how that can be missed…

    May this reflection reach the world!!


    • Thank you so much for your comment, Cynthia, and apologies for my late response.

      While the model is not mine, it came into my head after rewatching the Hobbit. I try to put myself in Bilbo’s shoes but, honestly, had it been me right there, I would have had no idea what to say to Gandalf.

      Isn’t that often the case that only after hours of pondering what the h…happened there, we get a whole dialogue going where we are so sure what the other person intended, would have answered if I had said… on and on and on. And unfortunately, next time we meet this person, instead of asking what that was all about, we treat them as if OUR OWN story was the truth.

  2. I love, love, love this Charlotte. Your creative and entertain flair on the dissection of communication is precious. You are so right about all of it. As a psychotherapist, I especially enjoy the line about not sharing feelings between therapist and client but discussing a lot of feelings. Again, you are correct, but I confess that with many of my longer-term clients we express mutual admiration for each other. What can I say? Well, in my sessions, feelings abound. Thank you for this sumptuous article.!💖

    • Thank you, Darlene, I am so happy that the article resonated with you and your experience.

      I was reading Lori Gottlieb’s excellent, funny, touching book “Maybe you should talk to someone” and at least from the reader’s point of view, many clients can be difficult to love when they first step into the clinic.
      But then the transformation takes place and I would not be surprised at all if clients down the line will utter not only admiration for the person who has helped them but also sincere gratitude. To be a catalyst for this transformation must be so rewarding.

  3. I loved this piece! It contains a lot of honest, well-thought out information and makes me think about the people I engage with on a regular basis. Some (as close as my family) are still on a level three, sometimes four. While others that I work with or are friends with get the level five on a regular basis. I think when we feel comfortable opening up – and our level is met and not taken advantage of – it gives way to learn more about ourselves and our own journey.

    • Thanks for sharing, Joanna. Particularly with people we have known for a very long time it can be difficult to break out of old role patterns. My big sister will always be my big sister. There is sometimes less of a risk with people who don’t mean quite as much to us. Sometimes the best response is just to be quietly listening and see what happens.