The three levels of conversation represent a map of intimacy in connection with others, and are a useful tool to identify the level of conversation, and to guide a conversation toward deeper levels to cultivate more connection and intimacy between ourselves and others. The levels apply across all social domains and relational contexts - at work, in the home, in community, and in the general public.
The highest or most superficial level of conversation is the informational level, and typically feels the least intimate. This is where we talk about things and their place in time and space, exchange news and facts, and report on our experiences moving through and living in the objective, scientifically measured world.
This level also includes biographical data and all those boring questions you usually ask or get asked at social gatherings - where are you from, what do you do for work, where do you live, what are you up to this weekend, etc.
Think about most of your interactions on any given day. A reminder to your partner to pick some things up at the grocery store. A meeting at work to review last quarter’s numbers. A few pleasant words with the postman. A quick chat with a neighbor, about nothing in particular.
These are all examples of the informational level of conversation. It’s what many people refer to as “small talk.” It’s almost all factual, practical, functional information that relates useful information from one person to another, devoid of emotional content.
The next level of conversation is called the personal level, and it’s where we talk about how we feel about the content at the informational level.
Informational: “Let’s meet at the corner of Broadway and 10th, and walk to the restaurant from there.”
Personal: “I’m really excited to see you! I can’t wait to tell you about my new job!”
Informational: “It’s supposed to be cold and cloudy tomorrow.”
Personal: “I wish it was nicer, I really want to be outside in the sunshine.”
Informational: “Did you hear about the terrorist attack that just happened?”
Personal: “It just breaks my heart seeing what’s happening in the world.”
While the informational level is grounded in objective references, the personal level is grounded in subjective experiences. As distinct from the next level of conversation, the personal level is defined by sharing emotions in relation to something or someone beyond the current time and/or space - either in the past or future, or somewhere other than the current location.
When someone shares from the personal level, it’s an invitation to the other person or people to connect with the speaker at this deeper level. However, most people connect with how the emotion in the other person maps onto their own emotional imprint, rather than connecting with the emotion as it lives in the other person.
For example, if your friend is sharing about how sad she is that her boyfriend didn’t call her on her birthday, you will likely recall a past similar incident that produced an emotion you label as sad, and connect with your friend based on your own experience of sadness in being shunned, neglected, or abandoned. When people say something like “I totally know how that feels,” they are speaking from this mapping-on of the other person’s emotions to their own emotional structures.
Because of this phenomenon, it’s important to watch out for when we don’t fully welcome another person’s emotional experience. Whenever we try to make someone feel better or offer a bit of advice that is designed to change their experience, it’s most often because we’re uncomfortable with how that emotion lives within ourselves, and is usually an indication that we need to confront and integrate the mapped-on pain as it relates to our own emotionally traumatic history.
For most people, the personal level is as intimate as a connection gets, yet there is another, deeper, level that often fosters immeasurably more vulnerability and subsequent intimacy.
The relational level applies the identifying and naming of emotions from the personal level to the present moment and space. What’s happening now? How am I feeling in this moment? How are you feeling being here with me? Whenever we bring our attention to the present moment, we often experience greater enlivenment, engagement, and connection with others.
One of the most effective ways we can articulate the experience of the present moment is to start sentences with “I notice…” This brings our attention to the multifaceted aspects of our present moment experience, and lets another person into our inner world. It’s also a great way to develop a sense of non-attachment to the emotions and sensations of the present moment without collapsing into them or suppressing them.
Informational: “Can we talk about funeral plans for Grandpa tomorrow?”
Personal: “I’m sad that some of the grandkids won’t be able to make it.”
Relational: “I notice I’m feeling anxious talking about this… Can we slow down for a moment?”
Informational: “I came here with my friends… I heard the DJ is amazing.”
Personal: “I actually don’t really like his music very much.”
Relational: “I notice that I don’t want you to think that I’m complaining, because I’m actually having a good time.”
Informational: “Hey Greg, we need to get that report done by tomorrow for our clients.”
Personal: “I can’t stand how demanding they are!”
Relational: “I notice I feel relieved I can be so honest with you about this... thanks for listening.”
You can start to get a sense of how the experience of intimate connection with another deepens as we move down the levels. Anytime we invite another person into our present-moment lived experience exactly as it’s happening inside of us, we are allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and seen and heard for who we really are. We’re not hiding, filtering, distracting, projecting, or doing anything else to manage how our internal experience is perceived by others. It’s a raw, naked exposure of our inner selves, necessarily subjecting ourselves to potential judgments or attacks from the outside. But it’s also liberating in letting the mechanisms that control how we portray ourselves to the outer world fall away, revealing our essential, authentic, real selves to be touched and known by others.
Here is a conversation between a married couple that navigates up and down the levels of connection. See if you can identify when there is a level change.
Bob: “Hey Sue, can we talk about what happened yesterday, when we got into that argument?”
Sue: “Sure, I have about fifteen minutes before I need get going.”
Bob: “OK great, thanks. Yeah that was pretty intense for me, and I notice that I’m feeling nervous bringing it up again because I don’t want to stir things up.”
Sue: “Well I was pretty upset that you forgot to pick up the package like I asked you to. But I know you had other things on your mind and I’m feeling pretty relaxed about it now.”
Bob: “I feel very relieved hearing that, and thanks for understanding. I can go later this afternoon and pick it up.”
Sue: “Thanks, I appreciate that. I’m sorry that I yelled at you yesterday. I was pretty stressed after a hard day at the office. Can we cuddle for a couple minutes? I’m noticing a desire to feel closer to you.”
Bob: “Yes, me too. I’d love that.”
The elements of this conversation that are associated with the relational level of connection might sound awkward or unnatural if you haven’t explored this level much - for example, when Sue says “I’m noticing a desire to feel closer to you.” That’s because most people haven’t accessed or explored this level of connection, and it can very much sound like a foreign language at first.
Most people in Sue’s position would just ask to cuddle and leave it at that. They aren’t aware of the contextual background that’s producing the request. The relational level has us notice this background, and be able to share with another. Without providing the context for the request, Bob might wonder if Sue wants to cuddle for his sake, to make him feel better. He might not trust that it’s actually Sue’s authentic desire to feel closer. By offering the present-moment relational experience that is producing Sue’s request to cuddle, Bob can relax and feel more connected to Sue’s inner world.
Here are some leading questions that you can use to guide a conversation toward the relational level:
“What’s it like to share this with me?”
“What’s happening for you right now?”
“How are you feeling being with me?”
“What’s it like to hear that?”
Here’s another conversation between two people on a first date. In this example, Greg has learned about the three levels of connection while Amy isn’t familiar with it. Greg is going to gently guide the conversation toward the relational level - see if you can notice the deepening sense of intimacy as he does.
Greg: “So what kind of work do you do?”
Amy: “I work for an insurance company but it kinda sucks, I’m hoping to move into something different soon.”
Greg: “Oh cool, what kind of work would you want to move into?”
Amy: “Well I really love working with kids, so something in that field, a teacher maybe.”
Greg: “That sounds amazing and really fulfilling. What is it about working with kids that you enjoy?”
Amy: “I just love how sweet they are, and I love helping them discover new things about themselves and the world.”
Greg: “Wow, I’m noticing a lot of appreciation for you, hearing that. It sounds like you have a real passion for that kind of work.”
Amy: “Thanks! Yes, I’m super passionate about it. There’s so much I want to share with kids… they are just like sponges, and I want to do whatever I can to fill them with joy and excitement for life.”
Greg: “I love seeing how lit up you are talking about it! I’m feeling inspired by you right now. What’s it like talking about your dream of working with kids?”
Amy: “Oh I get so excited talking about it. I feel like I could make it happen right away. Wow, I’m feeling more excited about it right now than I have in a long time. Thanks for taking such an interest in it!”
One of the remarkable features of the three levels of conversation is that the people with whom you’re in relationship don’t need to know anything about it to experience the depth of intimacy it can foster, as you can see from the above conversation.
With Greg’s prompts and with his own present-moment revealing of his experience, Amy is honing in on her own present-moment experience, and already has the innate ability to articulate it. Even though she doesn’t have the map, she can sense the shift in engagement and enlivenment as the conversation steers toward the relational level.
This gentle, connective guidance toward the depth of intimacy that the relational level offers is possible with anyone, anytime, anywhere. We’ve applied it at nightclubs and parties, on airplanes with seat-mates, waiting in line at a store, in foreign countries, with family members, during business meetings, and pretty much anywhere else people find themselves in contact with someone for more than a few minutes.
The relational level of conversation is where the magic happens, where people feel the most seen and known, and where trust can be most greatly cultivated. Without the filters and guards we’ve been conditioned to hold between us and others, the relational level is where we actually want to be, where we experience the fullness of connection with another being. With practice, you’ll develop the ability to guide any interaction to this level, and leave everyone with whom you come into contact with a precious and heart-opening gift… the gift of intimate connection.