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Posted by Sarah Brown on 30 Jan '24

Are you communicating effectively enough?

Effective communication is the cornerstone of success in your personal and professional life. It's the foundation upon which everything else is built.

No matter what you're trying to achieve, you need to communicate well. That's why it's so essential to master the art of communication.

This blog aims to help you (and remind me) how to communicate more effectively. Its focus is verbal communication, but not all communication is verbal. The most potent communication also uses visual cues, even if they are only smiling and an attentive expression. This short Ted Talk illustrates the power of pictures in helping you achieve your goals by drawing your future, for example.

The elements of verbal communication

Any form of communication has two essential elements. Whether you're talking to someone in person or writing an email, it always involves two aspects: expressing yourself and actively listening or receiving the message. So, it's about what you say or write and how well you understand what others are trying to convey. You need both elements for effective communication!

The levels of communication

Whatever you say or write will involve one or more of the following levels of communication. There are four levels for writing and expressing messages and five for listening and receiving messages.

The four levels of writing/expressing range from level one, where we exchange superficial greetings through facts and then opinions, until we progress to level four, where we become closer and share our emotions. Different nationalities and personalities progress through these levels at different speeds, which can cause difficulties. For example, Americans are more likely to share emotions much more quickly than the British, making both sides uncomfortable.

In listening/receiving, the five levels progress from ignoring through pretending, where we often fail to truly listen because we are preparing to speak to selective listening to bits that interest us; attentive listening, where we really concentrate to the deepest level empathetically and actively listening where we both concentrate and listen to understand the real meaning behind the words.

The levels of communication in detail

Ignoring: level one of listening/responding

It may seem unusual to start with something that clearly cannot be a part of communication where we are not listening at all. Our body language may also indicate that we are not paying attention. For instance, we may look away, do something else, and not engage with the person communicating.

There are no circumstances under which this level of listening is acceptable, and it should be avoided. We should actively listen even when the communication directed at us is hostile or insulting. Our lack of attention may frustrate the person communicating with us and make their negative communication even more severe.

When speaking and listening, it is usually easy to tell whether someone is listening to you. However, when it comes to writing, especially emails, it can be difficult to know whether someone has missed the communication
or is intentionally avoiding answering.

This can be particularly frustrating for the person trying to communicate, especially, for example, when they are applying for a job and are waiting for a response. Not receiving a response to a written communication is just as rude as showing someone that you can't be bothered to engage face-to-face.

If you wouldn't ignore someone face to face, you shouldn't let your organisation ignore emails. Responding to emails is important, even if it's difficult or time-consuming. I have at least one email to which I have yet to reply, but writing this has reminded me that I need to bite the bullet and respond even though it will be difficult.

Platitudes: level one of speaking/writing

When we initiate communication with someone, it's common to start with simple greetings such as "Hello" or "How are you?" In an organisational context, we may aim to raise awareness, for example, with the classic spam email. In written communication, standard greetings like "dear sir" or "hi" may come across as impersonal and fail to establish a connection with the recipient. To make a more lasting impression and engage in meaningful conversations, you need to move up the levels of communication in terms of content to establish rapport.

Facts: level two of speaking/writing

From the initial greeting in most conversations, the next stage is to exchange information, share facts, and build knowledge. This could be through discussing current events, sharing personal experiences, or exchanging ideas. You may inquire about each other's interests, hobbies, or professional backgrounds to find potential areas of common interest or to make the other person feel more comfortable. The aim is usually to establish common ground, identify areas of mutual interest, or just put the other person at ease. It's a natural process that helps people develop meaningful connections and relationships. The exchange of information can also help us gain new perspectives and insights from one another. This process of exchanging information and building rapport is crucial to effective communication. It helps to establish a solid foundation for future interactions.

Pretend listening: level two of listening/responding

As the platitudes and facts progress, we may indicate we are listening by using body language and eye contact, but our minds may be elsewhere, intentionally or unintentionally. This is called "pretend listening."

However, if we use pretend listening, we risk being caught out when asked to repeat or act on what was said. When that happens, a definite withdrawal is made from that relationship's trust or emotional bank account, and it's only made worse when we try to cover it up.

In the written world, this happens in communications between companies and customers, where template responses that don't answer the customer's needs are used to respond to queries and communications. For a small organisation like ours, the solution is Aspira, our chatbot who will offer a chance to talk to us if you haven't found what you want on our website, but many larger organisations are very frustrating as there isn't a way to get heard or get the answer you need.

Selective listening: level three of listening/responding

The act of selectively listening is also a common occurrence when sharing information. At this level of listening, we only pay attention to what we deem relevant or interesting. We may also pretend to be listening by displaying body language that suggests we are engaged when, in reality, we may only be hearing certain parts or sporadically engaging in the conversation. Selective listening is a step in the right direction, as it involves at least a basic level of listening. However, the problem with this level is that we are only listening to parts of the message, typically the ones WE are interested in or where we can respond with a clever comeback. This type of listening can result in miscommunication and misunderstandings, as the parties may hear different parts of the conversation.

Written communications, such as emails or WhatsApp messages, are particularly prone to selective and fast reading. This means that sometimes, we miss something important as we quickly respond to a message. Not reading thoroughly and carefully can lead to disastrous consequences. Therefore, pausing and reviewing the message before clicking the send button is always useful.

I recently received an email that made me think the sender had misunderstood me. My initial reaction was to respond and clarify my point. However, I decided to wait and review the email chain. After checking it, I realised I had offered exactly what the person had written. If I had responded quickly, it would have been a mistake.

Opinions: level three of speaking/writing

Opinions include what an organisation considers important, such as its values, beliefs, and purpose. For individuals, opinions include a political viewpoint or a preference for a particular sports team, for example.

This is often when a relationship changes. Opinions can create a bond or be divisive. In Sheffield, for example, even non-football fans tend to support either Sheffield Wednesday or Sheffield United. Supporting one team or the other might impact the closeness of a relationship and determine whether people can share their emotions at a deeper level.

We can build a deeper rapport and relationship only when we begin to understand a person's viewpoint. However, as the saying goes, avoiding contentious issues such as religion and politics can still be wise.

At this stage, we might still be using selective listening if we weren't engaged by the facts or opinions shared, or we might have moved to attentive listening because a fact or opinion was important to us, so we really began to listen.

Attentive listening: level four of listening/responding

Attentive listening is a conscious effort to pay close attention to the speaker and understand their message. It involves actively processing the words being said and eliminating any distractions to listen effectively. Attentive listening requires us to be fully present in the moment, focused on the speaker and their ideas, and to demonstrate respect for them. In the work environment, it is the level we aim to achieve most frequently. This involves tools such as eye contact, reflecting, rephrasing, and other ways to stay engaged. However, even at its best, this level of listening is still based on our experience or frame of reference rather than the other person's.

Emotions: level four of speaking/writing

This is the deepest level of communication. Sharing a personal emotion that is important to us as an individual can make us feel vulnerable, but it also allows us to open up and shows trust in the person we are communicating with. At this stage, it is crucial that we feel heard and that the person we are sharing with is attentive and empathetic. If we don't feel that way, it can damage the relationship and prevent us from feeling close to the other person.

Organisations can create an emotional connection by demonstrating the positive impact they have on the world and also by how they market themselves. People can become very passionate about brands that they connect with on an emotional level.

Sharing emotions in writing is more difficult because tone and body language are important in the communication of emotion, which is only possible if you are face to face.

Empathetically listening: level five of listening/responding

The fifth level of listening is known as empathetic listening. At this level, we listen not just to what is being said but also with the aim of comprehending. Empathetic listening necessitates that we try to see things from the speaker's perspective by putting ourselves in their shoes. We pay attention to their emotions and try to understand why they are communicating and how they would like us to react. By empathetically listening, we become better equipped to respond effectively to the speaker.

Empathetic listening is the highest level of listening, and it requires the most significant amount of mental and emotional energy. It goes beyond attentive listening because it requires us to focus on understanding the speaker's frame of reference, using our full listening faculties, plus our heart and mind.

When we listen empathetically, we immerse ourselves in understanding how the speaker is thinking and feeling. We actively push our own perspective out of our minds and hearts, and instead, we try to walk with them, see things as they see them, and feel as they feel.

This level of listening is immensely exhausting yet rewarding. It is a level of listening that is reserved for the closest relationships and the most critical of times.


As the famous saying goes, "We are born with two ears, two eyes and one mouth", and it is advised that we use them in that proportion. What we express verbally or in written form should begin with polite and positive phrases and then gradually progress with more depth. It may not always be suitable to share our opinions or emotions on every occasion, but to build a closer relationship with people, it is essential to understand them better by getting to know their thoughts and feelings.

In a perfect world, empathetic listening would be the ideal approach to listening and responding to others. However, it is acceptable to aim for attentive listening. If we listen with anything less than attentive listening, then we are not listening effectively.

When I first learnt about the four levels of communication, I realised that the reason I didn't feel close to someone I had known a long time was because we had only ever shared facts. I knew nothing about their opinions or emotions.

Realising that every interaction involves the four levels has given me the tools to feel confident in how I manage conversations and build rapport; I hope you find it helpful as well.

Read more

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