3 Levels of Communication and Their Role in Building Relationships

shutterstock_173523611In my book “How to live with your Kids when you have already Lost your Mind,” I identify three levels of communication that we generally use as we talk to our children.   Although all three levels are essential to survival it is important to think about all the levels of communication we can use and how they impact the relationships with those we care about.

Pay attention leaders and grandparents! These are also great principles for us to practice.

Level One: Informational Nagging

Informational nagging consists of giving orders or instructions and asking probing questions about whether those orders and instructions were followed.

  • Empty the garbage!
  • Clean your room!
  • Brush your teeth!
  • Get that report done!

These demands are usually followed up by questions…

  •  Did you empty the garbage?
  • Has FEMA still designated your room as a disaster area?
  • What’s that growing on your teeth?
  • Where is that report?

Level one communication is designed to get things done. It’s use exclusive to parents! This level of communication is often the staple language of the workplace.

Level one is absolutely essential in order to meet the needs of every day life, but does little to build relationships with your children or your coworkers. Anyone who hears this level of communication on a regular basis, perceives it as nagging.

In their book Raising Self Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent world, H Steven Glenn and Jane Nelson say that we spend more than half of our time communicating with our children on this level. Unfortunately informational nagging totally bypasses the heart and much of the mind.

Unless you are into heart bypasses, you might want to include other levels of communication.

Level Two: Intellectual Dialogue

Whereas Informational Nagging is generally a monologue needing no verbal response, Intellectual Dialogue encourages the exchange of ideas.

When children feel the freedom to express their thoughts, they feel loved and important. Discussions of faith, politics, world event, and personal philosophy should occur frequently in a home, with plenty of room for questions and doubt. These discussions are a beautiful springboard for keeping abreast of the issues your child is facing. They can give you an unobstructed view of your child’s heart.

  • Both parents and leaders are prone to squelching the expression of ideas that differ from our own. Of course this squelching does nothing to change the thoughts or beliefs of those we engage, it only discourages them from expressing those thoughts to us.  Our children or our team quickly learn to keep quiet or to only say what they think we want to hear.
  • Children will eventually will ask themselves, “How reliable are my parent’s opinions, since they never seem willing to test them against opposing viewpoints.” Co-workers are much quicker to come to this conclusion.
  •  As parents we must remember that listening and trying to understand the ideas of our children is not the same as endorsing those ideas.
  • Listening and engaging our children in conversation gives you an invaluable opportunity to know exactly what your child is thinking and an even more valuable opportunity to suggest rational options.

Paramedics always try to keep critically injured people talking. Somehow, conversation keeps the patient from submitting to the subtle temptation to give up.

Practice the same technique with your children. Keep them talking. It will give you more opportunity to address their strange and dangerous ideas than a curt rebuttal. It will also give your child the chance to move with confidence to the next level.

Level Three: Heart to Heart Dialogue

This critical level of communication can flow quite naturally out of levels one and two. Mature communication on this level deepens relationships of any kind.

  • If  a coworker sends you a text that says, “Don’t forget the sales meeting today! 7:30am” – That’s level one communication. You’ve been informed, but your friendship hasn’t been enhanced.
  • If your friend adds, “Call me! —- I’m interested in what you think about the strategy we will be discussing.” – That’s an invitation to level two communication, the exchange of ideas. Instantly you know your friend values your ideas.
  • If your friend adds, “I’ve missed you lately—I’m looking forward to seeing you,” you have moved to heart to heart communication and communicated on all three levels in one text message.

Unfortunately in this culture of sound bites the heart is often left far behind. Leaving the heart behind is certainly not an option when communicating with children.  Level three communication deals with how I feel, what I fear, and who I love.

We can prompt our children and friends to participate in level three communication by asking careful questions… (questions full of care)

You seem angry, disappointed or sad. Tell me what is going on? Help me understand the why you made the decision you made?

Our children often don’t bother to give us meaningful answers to those questions because they feel we are not really interested in their response. Communicating on all three levels will demonstrate your interest.  Level three communication strives for mutual respect. It deepens relationships and invites resolution.

Confession time!

I am an expert at level one communication.
I am not very skilled at level two communication.
I am learning the critical value of level three communication, particularly with those I love.

Did your parents use all three levels with you?
Do you communicate on all three levels?

I value your comments.[reminder]


Parents or Grandparents! Click here to get Ken’s book “How to live with Parents with out losing your mind” and here for “How to live with your kids when your mind is already gone.”






  1. What a fantastic article, and a great breakdown of how we “communicate” or perhaps don’t communicate with our kids … I think this can be used in all areas of our lives 🙂 I know we, here at my house, seen to use level one 90% and level two 10% … and never thought of level three!

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