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Four Levels of Communication for Leaders

AnonymousBy Edwin Miller 7 years ago
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I have found there are four levels of communication for leaders that we can use in any environment. I use the term communication, because you can use these levels in written or verbal forms across mediums.

Unsurprisingly, I began at level one, and then unfortunately remained there for many years—even as a CEO! However, I learned some tough lessons over the years and thankfully grew as a manager, leader, father, and husband. As leaders, in our homes or at our businesses, we need all four levels of communication in our toolkit. The four levels are:Talk at, Talk to, Speak with, and Listen and Empower. They are all distinct and can all be used effectively in certain situations.

For many years I would think about board meetings, sales meetings, or all hands meetings as a place to go and deliver information. A portion of these meetings will certainly have times where the delivery of information is the main objective. But there are also parts when I will need to actively listen and empower participants too. Creating a truly effective meeting requires the ability to deftly move around these forms of communication. Let’s explore these four levels of communication together!

Level 1 – Talk At

Quite simply, this occurs when someone walks in and either declares what is to be done through rhetorical questions or statements. We all know this type of communication, for we have all both used it and recieved it. Sometimes we talk at our kids when they are about to do something we disagree with.

We have been in meetings where our neck is on the line, we feel the pressure, and instead of listening and empowering, we talk at the team and tell them what needs to be done to win the game. There are times when we can talk and should talk “at” someone but I believe these moments should be fewer in number, and they should be bathed in as much humility as possible. For people who only use the “talk at” style or level of communication, they will be very limited in life. Even if they have the power of a corner office, they will probably not be well respected. They may even be feared.

Tips for effectively Talking At

Less is more. Speak slowly and say less. “Get the red one” is talking at, and does not include rationale.

Understand who can handle what type of information, don’t let information flow loosely without a purpose that helps the stakeholders.

Before you consider talking “at”, I recommend the “listening and empowering” level of communication. “At” from the start is rarely appropriate outside of emergencies and tactical scenarios.

Level 2 – Talk To

Many business leaders who are close to making a decision, are already out there convincing stakeholders about their decisions. This is when they are “talking to” people. While the “Talk at” is a commanding style of communication through declarative statements, “talking to” incorporates a higher level of emotional connection and empathy. It is a softer form of communication, but continues to make a direct point or statement.

If you were to leverage the “to” style communication, it would leave room for conversation. This would allow the listener to share his/her thoughts and concerns, but it would still not be collaborative in nature. When you need to give a speech for 2-3 minutes in a meeting, or a longer talk to explain something, “talking to” is a “conversational speaking style” but isn’t quite a conversation.

Tips for effectively Talking To

Empathize with the listener but use an assertive tone.

Pause enough to see and react to your listeners’ facial expressions.

Give people the rationale behind your point.

Avoid “here are seven reasons,” or long oratories, instead picking the single best explanation

Use for your go-to teaching tone. Where “talking at” is the teaching tone we all know of as “talking down” from a teacher, talking to is humble teaching.

Level 3 – Talk/Speak With

This level is all about working toward collaborative decision making. As a leader, having the ability to be “with” the people we are speaking to, leading, and serving is crucial. People know if you are really “there” or not. The leaders that find a way to actually be in the moment with people and express an authentic leadership style are more effective in their roles, as people want to follow what is real or genuine. And these leaders end up better for having listened.

This is not unidirectional, as in level one or two. Reaching “with” in a dialogue or over a series of conversations means there is a true two-way conversation occurring – a true give-and-take dialogue. As a leader builds an understanding of a market, an organization, a team or an individual, it is critical that the leader communicates in a “with” manner. When you reach the “with” form of talking, a level of trust is built that allows you to effectively talk “at” and “to” in crucial moments. Level three’s side effect is currency to use levels one and two.

Tips for effectively Talking/Speaking With

Strive to be in the moment, and don’t cut people off

Confirm what you heard before responding, so that hearers feel understand and you effectively address their real concerns

Keep communication lines open – level three won’t seem safe if it rapidly wavers to two and one

Avoid judgment of ideas as they are being expressed—ask clarifying/leading questions and only make soft challenges

Level 4 – Listen and Empower

Often, the greatest leaders “listen and empower.” They build high-octane teams that are motivated and empowered to execute. Within any organization, all four levels of communication will occur, but a truly healthy organization will have a strong culture of listening and empowering.

As leaders we must be willing to integrate ourselves into the environment we lead. We must be willing to alter and improve established processes as great ideas percolate and find their way into a conversation. We need to carefully question because if we cannot probe appropriately, we cannot improve the business to its full potential.

Level four is not passive listening; it is active listening where we are watchful, not only of what is being said, but also of what is not being said—we are open to capturing uncommon insights. As we gain understanding, empowering is not responding with conformational direction and letting things be. It includes coaching—active coaching—for a person to reach their full potential. When we live in the present “with” our team, and we “listen and empower,”we play the game at the highest levels.

Tips for effectively Listening and Empowering

Identify what motivates your team members, and remember each word they say means something differently because of these personas

Obviously change set plans based on valid input, without guilt-tripping/calling out the fact that you are doing so—just be influenced

Listen with the clear intent to empower, not to respond

Don’t go on and on—level four becomes “just a discussion” after a certain point, and this type of communication can be draining for everyone. Trust people to fill in the gaps, and move on to other levels of communication or end the conversation once people feel empowered.

In order to use the four types of communication effectively, it is important to not rely on any one level. Rather, we need to transition between these levels according to circumstances, as there is a time and place for all four levels of communications. A vital aspect however, is the tone we use in any of these levels. A person can speak at all levels of the stack and change the tone to alter the outcomes or influence of the conversations.

If you have had the privilege of a great leader in your past, I’d love to hear how that leader managed these levels of communication!


Edwin has authored 9Lenses Insight to Action:A Social Approach to Business Optimization and Snapshot9 What’s Your Picture?:Accelerate Your Business Performance. Click here to download the first chapter of 9Lenses Insight to Action for free!

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