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Does this sound familiar: you are in a meeting that keeps moving in circles. Every week the same items are on the agenda, but there is no progress towards your goals. Or it is obvious that something is going on, but you can’t pinpoint what it is, let alone resolve it. We can all think of such a situation we have been in. An intervention on another level can offer a solution.

A team is not a group of people who work together. A team is a group of people who trust each other

Simon Sinek

The four levels of communication in 1 minute

There are four levels of communication on which you can – consciously or unconsciously – interact with others. These four levels of communication are:

  • Content. This is the task at hand that you must complete with the other person(s). It concerns the ‘what’.
  • Procedures. This is the way in which the task is carried out. It concerns the ‘how’.
  • Interaction. Interaction is about the relationships between people. It concerns the connections between individuals.
  • Emotions. This level deals with the feelings of people. 

Being aware of these levels of communication has several advantages. On the one hand, it can improve communication. When you are struggling to cooperate, you can break a pattern by intervening on another level.

On the other hand, it can work to your advantage as well. If you are unfamiliar with the contents, at what level can you then contribute? You might be able to add value to the relationships and structure of the interaction.


What helps in these situations is to be aware of the different levels of communication that are in play in cooperating with others. An intervention on another level can break an unwanted pattern. Such an intervention can shift the conversation in a completely different direction. This article elaborates on these levels of communication.

Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results

Albert Einstein

Let’s plan an activity for our team

To get to know the model, we will apply it in a very simple fictional situation. You are assigned the following task: plan the yearly business outing of your team, together with Henk, Els and Jan. This seems like a clear and fairly easy task, doesn’t it?

You start totally energized and ready to pick a location, the form of transportation, and the date of this year’s event. It turns out to be a bit more work than you initially estimated. A moment for a weekly meeting is picked and some rules are discussed regarding the different roles within the team. As the weeks progress, progress slows, the energy dissipates and frustrations start to mount. Jan criticizes every idea Els comes up with, Henk seems to just go along with every idea you propose, and Els arrives at least 10 minutes late at the weekly meetings. How on earth will this lead to a good business outing?

What’s going on below the table?

In dealing with others there are always – consciously or unconsciously – four levels of communication. These levels are content, procedures, interaction, and emotions (see figure below). A distinction is made between the levels that are visible and ‘above the table’ (content and procedures) and the levels that are invisible and ‘below the table’ (interaction and emotions).

The four communication levels above and below the table (source)

The four communication levels in the example of the business outing

When looking at the example of planning the business outing, these four levels can be clearly distinguished. Also, some additional information was added for clarification:

  • Content. Arrangements have to be made for the business outing. When will it take place? Who will arrange transportation?
  • Procedures. There is a team of 4 people that meets weekly at a set time and day. The deadline for any tasks discussed during the meeting is the next week so that they can be discussed with the team. We take turns being the chairman of the meeting and everyone gets a turn.
  • Interaction. Jan criticizes every idea of Els. Henk goes along with all of your ideas. Els arrives at least 10 minutes late at every meeting
  • Emotions. Jan is frustrated with Els and he feels hurt because Els made a snappy remark last week. Henk is afraid to make a mistake and be punished for it. A relative of Els is seriously ill. This makes her sad and scared and she can’t keep her mind on work.

By focussing solely on the content, the business outing of your company will probably lead to very little excitement. By not addressing the emotions at play you might hold Els accountable for being late all the time. The chances of this resulting in her showing up on time from now on are close to zero. To make this team successful, an intervention is required at another level, in this case below the table.

Communication level - content

Content

This is the task at hand, the work you have to complete together with others. It concerns the ‘what’. In our example, the task at hand is arranging for the business outing to take place.

Generally speaking, this level receives the most of our attention, as it is the most visible and also most tangible. It is simply the task or tasks that your team should complete. Are you struggling to cooperate or are the results falling behind? This is a signal that something is going on at another level.

Communication level - procedures

Procedures

This is how the task is carried out. It concerns the ‘how’. When will you meet? How do the meetings come about? Is there a standard agenda? Is there a clear division of roles within the team and during the meetings? This relates to the complete process that evolves around the content.

What is the purpose of this meeting?

In a previous job, I made an intervention on this level that saved me a lot of time and energy. Due to the prolonged absence of a colleague, I was asked to temporarily fill in for him. The responsibilities included attending a weekly meeting with 6 colleagues from different departments. During my first meeting, I listened to the conversations for a while and after roughly one hour I asked a seemingly simple question: “What is the purpose of this meeting and what is the division of roles in it?”

The meeting’s purpose was something along the lines of “keep each other informed”. However, the answer I got to the second part of the question got me dumbfounded. Two colleagues had not said a single word so far. Of one of them, it was said (by someone else!) that he was the chairman of the meeting. Good luck keeping a straight face.

At that moment it was clear to me that this weekly meeting would not lead to the desired results. It obviously did not help me in achieving the goals I had in mind. I, therefore, ensured that these meetings got cancelled as soon as possible. In this case, it was a good decision, but quitting a meeting that is not productive isn’t the answer in all cases.

Recognize that every interaction you have is an opportunity to make positive impact on others

Shep Hyken
Communication level - interaction

Interaction

Interaction concerns the relationships between people. Who is liked? Is there a leader? Who has influence? Which (invisible) interests are at play?

Nelson Mandela was a terrific leader and the son of a tribe leader. When asked how he became such a good leader, he replied that as a little boy, he was allowed to attend the meetings of his tribe with his father. He noticed 2 things:

  1. All those present sat in a circle
  2. His father always spoke last

This is all about interaction because a circle doesn’t show hierarchy. When the leader speaks last, the other attendees are free to give their opinion in such a way that the opinion of the leader doesn’t influence them. The advantage for the leader is that he gets the real opinion of everyone present, rather than just the confirmation of his opinion.

Ensure everyone speaks and give them roughly the same amount of time to speak. This way the more introverted or quieter people can also provide their input. Ultimately, this is what will result in the best results.

Lead from the back and let others believe they are in front

Nelson Mandela
Communication level - emotions

Emotions

The awareness of this specific level has reaped the most benefits for me personally in recent years. The emotional level concerns how attendees feel; are they happy, angry, sad, frustrated, scared, bored and so on. Usually, we focus on what is actually said. However, by focussing on how people say something and following through on it, you can build relationships that can blow your mind. To do this, there has to be a basic level of trust in which everyone is comfortable showing his or her emotions, including the less pleasant ones.

I have experienced this myself several times. By focusing on how the other person said something and by naming it (“This makes you very sad, doesn’t it?“), there was room to express emotions such as grief, even in a business context.

How can you apply this model?

When I discovered this model, I didn’t quite understand what to do with it. It took time to observe it in practice before it was really useful. We all subconsciously know that there is more going on than just the content, but to consciously observe this and take action is a big step. Ultimately, it’s about breaking patterns. This usually takes place on another level than where the conversation is currently.

Place yourself in someone else’s shoes

I think it was Simon Sinek who stated that you should see your colleagues as children. I apply this way of thinking as follows: I have two sons and they are fantastic…but they can also be unreasonable at times as well as annoying. At such a moment I think to myself: “Are they tired? Hungry? Bored?. It never occurs to me that he is just annoying. When I have a difficult conversation with a colleague and I manage to step back from the conversation or discussion (in which I certainly don’t always succeed!), the same approach as with my sons is worth gold. By not focusing on the content, but on the emotion or interaction and by being understanding, any discussion can fade away.

On what level can you add value?

Recently I came across another valuable application of this model when coaching a group of students in their assignment for my company. The group consisted of 6 students with varying backgrounds and a large difference in prior knowledge for the task at hand.

The students with less prior knowledge were struggling to tag along with those who were more familiar with the subject. Keeping the model in mind, I was able to encourage the students that were lagging to add value on the procedural level. Some examples of how they could do this was to keep all stakeholders informed of the progress or by preparing the team meetings.

In my current position as a Product Manager, my strength is also not on the content level. It is rather on every other level. It is my responsibility to connect others, such as subject matter experts, to guide the cooperation in the right direction.

Let’s get to work (at another level)

So if you want to break a pattern, determine the current level of the conversation. Next, intervene on another level. As with most new skills, this one also starts with insight. Acknowledge that once you realize that some part of the conversation was taking place below the table, this is a huge step forward. Even if you did not immediately take action on it. As you start recognizing this behaviour more often, the step to make this a topic for discussion will become easier. This will result in better relationships with others.

By focusing on what goes on ‘under the table’ you speak to people at another level. This deeper level can help you leap in the contact with others, both professionally and personally.