Why Communication Can Get Messy

Posted by Ly Tran, Pastor of Counseling, on Aug 30, 2018

Why Communication Can Get Messy

Last year, my wife and I started teaching our six-year-old daughter Mandarin Chinese, or Rosetta Stone, I should say, started teaching our daughter for us. For 20-30 minutes, she sits there attentively in front of my laptop, matching pictures with the corresponding Mandarin words. She's almost done with Level 1, and hopefully, will move onto Level 2 by next year.

After doing couples counseling for 12 years, I've come to learn that even the most fluent English speakers are still stuck in Level 1 communication because they don't realize how layered and complex their communication actually is. Oftentimes, they are speaking at different levels with one another.

Levels of Communication

Speakers (Pitching)

Level 1 - Behavioral

Let's say the person communicating is the "pitcher" or the one delivering information. The simplest pitch, the one most of us are used to, is the "behavior" pitch.

  • "What did you do today?" 
  • "Please pick up some milk on the way home."
  • "Did you read the email that I sent you?"

Level 2 - Intellectual

The next level is communication that includes the sharing of thoughts, ideas, and opinions.

  • "Did anything interesting happen today at work?"
  • "What did you think about what I had to say in the email?"

Level 3 - Emotional

This next level, the one that eludes most people, includes the sharing of emotions and feelings.

  • "What emotions or feelings did you experience today and why?"
  • "Do you relate or connect at all with how I felt in the email I sent you?"
Each of these levels represents different ways we can communicate. People who are highly effective communicators understand which level to pitch at and how to switch between levels depending on who they're talking to. Conversely, people who have a hard time communicating will often mix the three up without even realizing it, sending mixed signals to the listener.

Listening (Catching)

Level 1 - Solutions

The catcher's easiest play is to fix or solve. What is the pitcher telling me, and what do I need to do as a result with that information?

Level 2 - Understanding

Sometimes no action or solution is required from the catcher. Just a willingness to listen and understand what the pitcher is trying to share. This is an "intellectual" or "head-connection.” You tell me what you think, and I show you that I "get you" and validate what you're telling me.

Level 3 - Empathy

And then there are the rare but important times where an empathetic response is the best response. This communicates not only do I "get you,” but "I feel with you, too.” One of the most precious types of connections, whether you are experiencing positive or negative emotions, is knowing that you aren't alone in what you're feeling.

Messy Communication

Communication usually goes well when the levels are matched equally. When a speaker pitches Level 1 Behavioral content and a listener catches with Level 1 Solutions, everything is great. Everyone's happy, and connection works great. Problems happen when there are mismatches.

The most common miscommunication and disconnect happens when a pitcher delivers Level 3 Emotions looking for either Level 2 Understanding or Level 3 Empathy, but instead, they get Level 1 Solutions.

Pitcher: "I've been feeling really anxious (Level 3 Emotions) about how the kids are doing in school lately (Level 2 Intellectual)."

Catcher: "Oh, I think they're doing fine, dear. Their grades aren't too bad." (Level 1 Solution) 

This would be an obvious mismatch that leads to disconnection. Have enough mismatched conversations and messy communication like this can lead to broken relationships. For clarity, here are some examples of matched responses from the catcher.

  • "Why do you think you're worried or concerned?” (Level 2 Understanding)
  • "Yeah, I can understand that. I've been kind of feeling that way too lately (Level 3 Empathy). What are the reasons why you feel that way?” (Level 2 Understanding)
Healthy communication and connections are an essential part of life and are far more complicated than most of us realize. If you'd like to learn more about ways to better communicate in your relationships, all you have to do is make a call to our church and ask for help. We have pastors and counselors that are trained and here to help. 


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