Four Levels of Communication a Leader Should Understand

skassoff@astreya.com Leadership

Over the years I have found there are four levels of communication that we can utilize in any environment. These levels are part of the people lens tool set in my first book, 9Lenses.  Unfortunately, I began at level one, and then spent many years there…  I learned some tough lessons through this and thankfully grew as a manager, leader, Father, and husband.  As leaders, whether in our homes or at our businesses, we need all four levels of communication in our tool belt.  The four levels I will discuss in this blog are: at, to, with, and listening and empowering.  They are all distinct and can all be used at different times and situations.  

Communication Level 1 : “At”

Let’s begin with “at.”  Quite simply, this occurs when someone walks into a room, or has been in the room, and either declares what is to be done through questions or statements. We all know this type of communication for we have all have done this as well as been the receiver. Sometimes we talk at our kids when they are about to do something we don’t agree with… If we have been in the military, the moment you step off that bus, the “at” communication begins, and it is one way, their way, for many good reasons.

We have all been in meetings where our bottom is on the line, we feel the pressure, and instead of listening and empowering, we talk at the team and tell them what we are going to do to win the game. Let’s be clear, there is a time for “at” communication. There are moments when we can talk and should talk “at” someone. I believe these times should be fewer in number, and they should be bathed in as much humility as possible, but different situations call for different communication approaches.  For the person that only uses the “at” style or level of communication, they will be very limited in their personal and professional lives. Even if they have the power of an office they will not be respected. They may be feared, but not respected.

I have found that before someone should lever the “at” communication style, they must first have reached the “listening and empowering” level of communication. If a leader has earned the right to speak “at” someone, picture the final four championship game with 5 seconds on the clock and a tied game – and these times should be few and far between – they must first have the trust of that person. Levering “at” can be necessary, but not our modus operandi.

Communication Level 2 : “To”

Now that we have discussed level 1 communication, and we possess an understanding of what it means to talk “at” someone, let’s next discuss talking “to” someone. There is a real and meaningful difference between the two levels of communication. While “at” is a one directional and “command” style of communication through rhetorical questions or declarative statements, “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. The person that is receiving the message will not feel quite as talked “down to” or “at” in certain instances.

As I stated before, there are times to lever the “at” style of communication. It happens around us each day, in our personal and business communications. At times when I call my broker and tell him to “sell” my holdings, it is quite simple, I want him to sell them and sell them now. This is an “at” style communication, I am not talking down to him, but I am making sure he understands I want my position sold. If I were to call him and lever the “to” style communication, it would leave room for conversation. This would allow him to inject his thoughts and concerns, but it would still not be collaborative in nature. This would not reach the “with” level of communication, but it would encompass more puts and takes than the “at” level of communication.  

Today as a leader, you may need to use the “at” style of communication, but be careful as you do this. As leaders we may also lever the “to” level or form of communication. People can feel good about either form of communication as long as that form of communication is not done in a talking down to or shame based manner. Remember, when we have the trust of those we lead, we will have already reached the “listening and empowering” level of communication before levering the other four forms or levels of communication. Quite frankly, reaching the “with” or “listen and empower” levels of communication is tough. It takes time, patience, understanding, and being vulnerable ourselves. It takes our trusting first so we can become trustworthy.  As we reach the pinnacle of communication we can move up and down the pyramid as we need to create success for our business, ourselves, and others. Let’s work hard on being safe and effective communicators in our personal and business lives.

Communication Level 3 : “With”

The first two levels of communication are “at” and “to.”  As previously noted, to be excellent communicators, we need all four levels of communication in our tool chest. The third level of communication is “with.” 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. They interpret our actions and determine our sincerity and care. The leaders that find a way to actually be in the moment with people and express a true genuine and authentic leadership style are more effective as leaders. People want to follow what is real, what is genuine. People long to follow a truly authentic leader that lives “with” his or her team and company.  

Reaching “with” in a dialogue or over a series of conversations means there is a true two-way conversation occurring – a real give and take dialogue.  As a leader builds an understanding of a market, an organization, a team, an individual, it is critical that the leader communicate in a “with” manner. At times, a leader will speak “at” and “to” various people or groups in his or her organization. Neither of these are bad – as there is a time and place for all four levels of communications. When a leader reaches the “with” form of communication, a level of trust is built that allows the leader to speak “at” and “to” at other times, as needed.

There are many instances where a leader interacts with a direct or indirect report. As an example, during a formal review, it would be best to lever the “with” level of communication. In ad hoc communication where a leader is attempting to coordinate or activate on specific topic, he or she may lever “at” or “to.” If the leader has achieved level four communication, he or she will have the ability to lever “at” or “to” levels of communication as long as it is encased in humility and care.  So whether a presentation, a small group meeting, or a one-on-one meeting, as leaders we will lever “at”, “to”, and “with” forms of communications. To truly lever these three in a meaningful manner and continue to have transparency and trust with others, we must first master the fourth level of communication. Today, working on being “with” your team. Strive to be in the moment and praise or align your team as needed to drive the change required to take your company to new heights!

Level 4 Communication : “Listen and Empower”

How is our communication geared? How do the best leaders in the world communicate? The greatest leaders “listen and empower.” They build high octane teams that are highly motivated and free to execute. Within an organization, all four levels of communication aforementioned will occur. In a truly healthy organization, not only will all four levels of communication occur, but the company will have reached a “culture” of listening and empowering.

When we live in the present “with” our team, and we “listen and empower” them in a continual manner toward the future, we play the game at the highest levels. When the culture is one of “listening and empowerment” the “at” and “to” communications are infrequent, but accepted and understood, very quickly. This creates a very healthy and competitive culture. So how do we “listen and empower” as leaders? It is not as simple as it sounds. We must be willing to extend ourselves into the environment we lead. We must have structure around what we are attempting to accomplish, but be willing to alter and improve the structure as great ideas percolate and find their way into the conversation. We must have great questions and a framework in mind, which means we must understand the content, people, processes, and systems that are being discussed. If we cannot probe appropriately, we cannot improve the business to its full potential through listening and empowerment. This is not passive listening; rather, it is an active listening, but not active doing. It is a listening where we are watchful, not only of what is being said, but what is not being said. As we gain understanding, empowering is not just directing and measuring the results. It includes coaching – active coaching – for the person to reach their full potential.  If a leader lives in the “listening and empowering” mode of communication they will be exhausted at times. It should require all the energy we can muster. It is much easier for a leader to bark orders than to truly prepare for and understand enough about a project, business, investment, ad nauseam, to reach the level of communication where “listening & empowering” exist.

We all have a tendency to be the “at” / “to” communicator at times. It can even be in a passive aggressive approach where a leader or employee decides to communicate in a manner that exudes their position without truly verbalizing how they feel in a meaningful and effective style.  At times, in stressful situations, I can revert back to these forms of communication. They can be very destructive when we have not been a part of living “with” our team and reaching the “with” and “listening and empowering” levels of communication.

So, we have discussed all four levels of communication that I have found to be necessary for excellence in leadership. I am sure over the course of my business life this model will continue to evolve and expand. We discussed “at,” “to,” “with,” and now “listening and empowering.”  All four must be in our tool belt. I have found the most success when I begin with listening and empowering and work my way to “at” only when the situation calls for that form of communication. We will use all four levels of communication as we both lead and manage. We will use all four levels of communication in speeches to small and large groups.

How are you doing with your communication today? Is it sharp? Does it create or drain the energy from a room? Let’s understand the difference and attempt to live at level 4 communication in our leadership approach and style.

Edwin Miller
President & CEO

Edwin is a technology industry executive, board member, and an executive consultant. He has successfully grown and transformed both public and privately held companies organically and through acquisition across both domestic and international markets. Edwin has extensive experience in forming strong leadership teams, forming a diverse and motivated culture, and transforming both software and IT services businesses.
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