Communication: The Five Levels

Why do we even talk about models and different levels of communication?  

Models help people think.

My agenda is not to get you to say “We need a little more level 4 communication around here!”  The people around you would probably not know what you were talking about, anyway.  But by thinking about these things we can observe if conversations keep going back to a safe, non-committing, and impersonal level.  If so, look for where they may be openings for creating deeper connections, for example by giving out sincere compliments, saying “thank you for helping me with…”, be open about your motivations, and talk nicely about other people.  Help build that safe container where deeper engagement can take place.

In some groups, friendly banter seems to happen all the time.  But sometimes it is used as a shield not to enter a space where intimacy can happen.  Yes, we may have a very entertaining evening exchanging jokes and stories we have all heard before (almost Level 1).  Does that tell you whom among your friends might need a helping hand, or whom you can rely on if you need a non-judgmental ear?

Does it help you feel more connected to the people you have these conversations with?

Some people are very open to talking about their inner lives.  To some, it is culturally taboo, or something that they have not been allowed because of gender norms, or… Well, above all: something they haven’t trained.

When we feel pressured into doing something we haven’t trained, we get defensive.  We may not have the right words for what we feel – if we even dare acknowledge that we feel something.  Rarely does anything good come from a point of “defensive”.

And yet, organizations, schools, children – all cry out for us to be “authentic” and to create spaces with “psychological safety”.

You know how organizations hire journalists to train their senior managers before they go on TV because the stakes are too high if they are “grilled” for the first time while the cameras are rolling?  Perhaps we should train communicating more on levels 4 and 5 under conditions where the stakes are not so high as they are with our colleagues, up and down the hierarchy.

Our family and friends, our colleagues, and employees deserve that we show up with more than a façade.  With more than standard phrases, small talk, and exchange of logistics. But most of all, we owe it to ourselves to obtain the skills to build healthy and supportive relationships.

“No man is an island.” –John Donne (1572-1631)

–Simon & Garfunkel, I am a Rock.


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.

CHECK FOR TICKETS / JOIN OUR WAITING LIST! It's not a virtual event. It's not a conference. It's not a seminar, a meeting, or a symposium. It's not about attracting a big crowd. It's not about making a profit, but rather about making a real difference. LEARN MORE HERE



  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.