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The Five Levels of Communication in a Connected World

Knowing what to say and when to say it is not enough. In the modern day, we must decide HOW to communicate.

In the digital world in which we live, it has become too easy to send emails, ping people via instant message, text, tweet, etc. Upon reflection, I think I’ve been too haphazard about how I communicate with my colleagues, clients, friends, and family. Oftentimes, an email about a problem should have been a phone call. And sometimes a phone call should have been an in-person meeting.
Knowing what to say and when to say it is not enough. In the modern day, we must decide HOW to communicate. Consider the five levels of communication:

Level 1: Message into the Ether

Snail mail and email have a few things in common: They can be of any length, and they are not conversational. Emails and letters are sent out, and then new messages are composed and returned. Sometimes it takes days or weeks before a response arrives. Since emails and letters are not conversational (they lump all points together rather than go point, counterpoint, point, etc…), there is a HIGH LEVEL of misunderstanding with this medium of communication. As many of us know, little issues can escalate over email.

Level 2: Back-and-Forth Messaging

Whether it is via instant message or text, the next level of communication is conversational but still conducted remotely. As points go back and forth, there is a more casual exchange that is also more direct. Misunderstandings are less likely because each message is quick and each participant can detect if they were misunderstood by the reply. However, the bite-size quality of this form of messaging means it’s not well-suited to discussing complex matters.

Level 3: A Verbal Dialog

In a verbal exchange, participants get to voice their opinions and relay a whole new level of data through their inflection. Inflection reveals elements like frustration, annoyance, and stress that are harder to detect in written communication. One major drawback is that verbal discussions often require scheduling. But, as my colleagues can attest, when a customer is upset I believe it is best to just pick up the phone and discuss it!

Level 4: The In-Person Spontaneous Discussion

When something important comes up, you might decide to just drop by a colleague’s desk and start talking. Such spontaneous discussions are often more effective than messages and phone conversations. The benefits of visually seeing each other will add a whole new level of mutual understanding to the discussion. Of course, there are numerous detriments to this level of communication. The fact that others are likely in the vicinity makes it less intimate, and spontaneity doesn’t work for everyone.

Level 5: The In-Person Scheduled Discussion

Planning an in-person discussion allows both participants to think about the topic in advance. The communication that ensues is the most dynamic possible. Inflection and visual cues allow you to gather non-verbal intelligence to ensure clarity. Privacy ensures comfort. Of course, a scheduled discussion doesn’t necessarily mean that it is formal. I will often plan an important conversation to address a concern over breakfast or lunch. What makes this level of communication so sacred is the mutually agreed upon time set aside for direct discussion.


After understanding the five levels of communication, you can start to decide which level is most appropriate for particular situations. With so many options, it can be easy to choose the path of least resistance rather than focusing on your objective and which level of communication will help you achieve it.
We get in trouble when we chose to communicate the easy way versus the right way. As our channels for communication expand, we must endeavor to be more thoughtful about how and when we communicate. In my research of admired leaders, I have found that communication judgment is an increasingly important factor of success. Knowing what can be done with “Level 2” communication versus what must be done “Level 5” is a sign of sound leadership instinct.

How Do You Communicate?

Have you developed any tips for selecting the right level of communication? I’m curious to hear your take on this increasingly relevant dilemma.

More Posts by Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is the Chief Product Officer at Adobe and is the co-founder of 99U and Behance. He has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and is the author of The Messy Middle and the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.

Comments (17)
  • InspirationHut

    Very interesting subject to talk about, the levels of communication you have got to a ‘T’. Very well explained.

  • Joshua Giudici

    I can say that I certainly do love the first two modes of communication for what they are: simple. They are simple means that I use when issues are not pressing, and usually reserve such things for communicating with non-time sensitive matters or for the transfer of files and documents.

    However, when I need something done, or an issue is of importance these forms of communication cannot do. To much will get lost in translation, misinterpreted or not responded to in ample time. Most often if someone tries to text or email with something time sensitive, I will immediately pick up my phone and call them right away.

    Since I am a freelancer who works from home it is difficult to simply walk over and talk to a client or coworker. What i should probably do is start scheduling meetings with clients once every or every other week.

    Good article.

  • Scott Brewster

    My biggest frustration with communication and most often criticism of others is the lack of follow up on the message. How often do you find someone who believes that email delivered equals email read and understood? I work with someone who isn’t exactly my boss but has more “rank” in addition to being part of the prime on the contract while I am sub on the contract. I grow evermore frustrated with his inability to read emails from others and the meeting minutes of teleconference meetings and his lack of follow up. He’ll send an email stating that he’d do something on a particular date three weeks out. There should be inferred tasks in that email for others to shut down certain IT services, but he doesn’t spell that out. In addition, those who should be doing these inferred tasks are CC’d on the messages, which to me is for informational situational awareness only. Lastly, the day comes for him to do what he needs to do, and he finds that these inferred tasks aren’t done. I’m not one of the people who fails to see the tasks as I am pretty anal retentive in my communication and desire for clarity in what needs done, but I don’t believe it is fair for him to be angry with those who don’t find these tasks on top of everything else they are doing or me because I am critical of him for this.

    I prefer email just because there is a record of the communication. Often people claim that they don’t remember things I needed them to do from a verbal conversation, so I tend to enumerate the things I need in an email and follow up with a call. I think I am the only person I know who uses the Journal in Outlook to keep track of what is said in my conversations. Whatever your method, please do the one thing I insist on the most: ensure the other person understands what you mean. Try to get the person to repeat it back to you.

  • Meri

    I think clients don’t like reading long emails anymore because of the twitter culture.

  • Frances at Speech Contacts

    I agree that all the levels offer positives and negatives in different circumstances , but the face to face levels are less tricky than remote messaging. Remotes so often give the wrong messages (after all, most messages received through non-verbal means). It’s so often worth following up remote messages with a phone call: that can deal with any unwitting bad messaging.
    Thansk for an interesting post.

  • Ryan Huckabay

    I have always felt there needs to be some discrection about which method of communitcation is used. I am frustrated by people who write novels in their e-mail and expect me to address all the multiple points they had. Mulitple short e-mails, or better yet, a phone call can make things easier.
    Great article. I loved seeing what I feel in writing.

  • Aleksandar

    In my opinion, the worst problem in communication is when you decide particular level of communication but person whom you supposed to communicate, decide different communication level. What we gonna do about that?

  • Paul Golding

    These “modes” of communication are not levels at all. They don’t mention the language, context, framing and protocols for dialogue. How the communication is framed is critical to its success. De Bono has written about this often.

  • SteveSanders

    99% articles are becoming fluff. Do people really need to read an article to tell them that there’s 5 levels of communication and to tell them the obvious about each???

  • Michael Maher

    Please check out (7L) The Seven Levels of Communication: Go from Relationships to Referrals at It is a #1 National Bestseller in Customer Service and Real Estate and reading it may clarify some of your thoughts here.



  • jkglei

    Hi Steve. 

    I agree we’re talking about something obvious here, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth discussing. I think email has become the defacto mode of communication, and many people fail – on a daily basis – to question if it’s the BEST mode of communication for the topic at hand. This leads to all kinds of disasters – large and small. The point here is not to tell you something you already know, but to incite deeper consideration about how we use these channels.

    If you’d like to share some thoughts on what topics you’d like to see us cover on 99%, I’d be happy to listen. Thanks.


  • eyezwise

    Great post. It’s funny, for those of us who work in marketing and advertising communications, that we struggle to effectively communicate between our clients and colleagues.

  • Ruggero

    Thank for this and the “email etiquette” post.
    Where would you place web-cam meetings? We are just starting with these ones with remote colleagues and it feels much better than plain calls.

  • Louis_Dea

    Video conferences like Google Hangouts and Skype are becoming an awesome communication level too. Specially for those who works from home and have clients all over the world!

  • MartyK

    Text and email deliver information. Requests asked of someone should be done through voice. This allows for clarity and acceptance, declines, or counter offers. Lets keep communication human.

  • baldjake

    And text, and IM, and FB, and Pintrest…etc,etc

  • W.Benkowski

    Join Toastmasters International and learn the art of speaking, listening and thinking.

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