The Five Levels of Communication in a Connected World

A while ago, The 99 Percent by Behive published an article about the Five Levels of Communication in a Connected World.
As someone who has been frustrated many times with people picking the wrong medium for their message, I really appreciate this breakdown. We all know how annoying it is when people haphazardly post personal messages on our Facebook wall, or when someone tries to avoid a difficult or sensitive conversation by sending email instead of picking up the phone.  I guess my more than average interest in communication and interaction, makes me extra sensitive to this.  But I really believe we could all work a lot more efficiently if we mastered our every day communication better.

According to The 99 Percent, the Five Levels of Communication in a Connected World are (in order of least to most personal):

1)Message into the Ether:  Email and regular mail.

2)Back-and-Forth Messaging:  Instant Messaging and Text Messaging.

3)A Verbal Dialog:  A phone call.

4)The In-Person Spontaneous Discussion:  This is the typical water cooler conversation or when a coworker walks over to your desk to discuss something.  For obvious reasons this one is very popular in office situations.

5)The In-Person Scheduled Discussion:  The classic meeting, a lunch date or even when you and a coworker carpool to a client meeting together.

For a more in depth explanation I invite you to follow the link to the original article.  But maybe not just yet!  After reading the article and giving this some considerate attention, I have to admit that I also communicate at the wrong level every now and then.  And despite agreeing with the gist of the article, I also have a few thoughts and remarks regarding the various levels.

Level one and two seem to have more and more overlap as technology evolves. I remember when text messaging was clearly a level one medium.  Mostly because it used to be a lot more tedious to type on a phone.  But also, and this is my un-researched personal opinion, because people used to pick up the phone more easily.  Whether this is a good or bad evolution is debatable.
This overlap also causes the line between the two levels to blur.  A new technology like Twitter is a good example of this.  In essence Twitter is a broadcasting tool and as such it would fall in the first category.  However, a lot of people are using Twitter as a second level direct messaging tool.  More and more we also stop making the distinction between level one and two altogether.  At my office, email is often used for instant messaging.  Both email and instant messaging have their strengths and we should consider those before we pick our medium.  Some of the strengths of email is that it allows you to explain a point more elaborately and that the recipient can take more time to formulate an answer.  On the other hand emails are sensitive to causing miscommunication, the strengths I just mentioned can backfire easily.

In general you could say that the levels go from less personal to more personal.  This also means that the higher the level the more serious the subject of a conversation the more we feel like it deserves a higher level means of communication.  I’m sure a lot of web professionals like the people at 37 Signals and Automattic would disagree with this.  Sometimes lower level communication is perfectly acceptable for more heavy weight subjects.  I believe in the end the goal and the content of the conversation should determine which level of communication is appropriate.  Ask yourself questions like: Do I need instant feedback or can I wait for a more thoughtful reply?  Can I explain my point in a few words through instant messaging or should I opt for a more lengthy email?  Will the conversation benefit from face to face interaction that allows for much more nuance than a phone call?

A few simple questions before firing up your instant messenger or picking up the phone can save a lot of time and frustration in the long run.

Further reading:
Five Levels of Communication in a Connected World [via The 99 Percent]
Getting in too-much touch
[via 37signals]
The interruption tax [via 37signals]

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