In any level of leadership development, attention must be paid to how effective we are in our communication skills. This is more than just having the gift to gab, it’s having the ability to convey information, ideas, and meaning in order to gain a common understanding between parties. This doesn’t mean we agree with everything another person says or believes. But it does mean coming to an understanding of each other’s thoughts, feelings, and positions in a civilized way where relationships are protected rather than broken.
Being an effective communicator starts with your first encounter with someone you’ve met. From that point, it may end or continue to build over time to whatever God’s design and purpose is for the relationship. How far and fast this process takes is determined by the level of safety you and the other person feel in each phase of the conversations. Here are five levels of communication determined by the safety level of how far the relationship goes.
1. Clichés. This level carries the least amount of risk because we’ve shared nothing significant about ourselves. It simply entails questions or statements such as: How are you? How have you been? It’s freezing outside!
2. Facts about others. This level carries no personal risks. Here you talk about people, the wife, the kids, work, or commentaries on facts in sports or mutual areas of interest.
3. Sharing our ideas and judgments. The risk level picks up at this stage because you’re now entering into potential zones of conflict. Politics, religion, you name it; this is where the other person might strongly disagree, and that makes it a risky place to be. You might back down to maintain peace and never touch on the subject again. Or you might adjust your position on the spot to avoid confrontation or being judged by the other and, therefore, aren’t truthful about your own beliefs, opinions, or thoughts.
4. Sharing Our Feelings and Emotions. This level is where complete vulnerability occurs. You begin to expose what you’re like on the inside when you reveal what’s behind your judgments and ideas. You could potentially experience a strong, negative reaction from the other person. Once you share your feelings at this level you’re no longer protected unless the other person is committed to protecting the relationship.
5. Unguarded Freedom. This level allows for complete honesty with a handful of very close friends. It takes a long time to get to this place and you’ll only experience this level with a few people in your lifetime. No risk factors exist here because the relationship has been tested many times in such conversations. Because neither of you have an agenda for each other’s self-improvement, you can freely share your problems, hurts and weaknesses at a personal level.
A final note on this for leaders—we’re not called to become everyone’s bosom-buddy. It isn’t possible, though some may try to guilt, shame, or manipulate us into it. Don’t allow people to cross boundaries you haven’t granted them permission to cross. Jesus invited only his three closest disciples to pray alongside him in the garden of Gethsemane, when he faced his most difficult trial of arrest, beatings, torture, and ultimate crucifixion.