Clients often mean ALL kinds of things when they say they have “problems communicating”. But one thing it can be very useful to help them sort out is; what “level” are they communicating at?
I describe 3 levels to my clients:
- CONTENT level – we are having a discussion about whether we should try and take a vacation this winter OR how strict we need to be about our child’s bedtime
At this level it’s just about getting the business at hand sorted. If things are going well in the relationship, often we can have routine discussions without needing to get down into the deeper levels of discussion.
- PROCESS or “META” level – talking about how we talk. Being able to name HOW I am talking and especially if I think I am doing something unhelpful e.g. sorry, I was arguing my point instead of listening and considering yours OR being hostile instead of compassionate.
When things start to go wrong, clients often try to shift things to the process level, but they typically do this by complaining about how their partner is talking, which turns it into a case of criticism and defence. We can help our clients realise that if they want to make the shift to “talking about how we are talking ” they need to talk about themselves (and in particular what they are doing to make things difficult) first. Shifting to the process level can be a very useful way of trying to work out why things are going of the rails, but only if it’s done with good will and a focus on collaboration.
- MEANING level – why does this matter to me, what is it about for me? (Beyond the obvious content). Often this is initially sub-conscious. e.g. having holidays is about feeling like I am free and succeeding unlike my parents who were chained to a business that never quite made it OR I feel like a bad parent, unable to control my child if s/he needs me to go in more than twice to settle them at bedtime
If clients have the presence of mind to explore the process level (Level 2) in a co-operative, relationship building way, it often allows the conversation to go even deeper. Talking at the meaning level is where the magic happens, where a real connection is most likely to occur. Learning about myself in the presence of my partner is the epitome of intimacy.
Helping our clients understand what levels of conversation are possible and why they should aim to explore beyond the content level can help the shift their interactions out of the stale, patterned, mundane and unproductive onto a whole other plane of connection and intimacy