The Four Levels of Business Communication

What are the levels of communication?

Like all abilities, communication is a skill you can improve through the practice of specific techniques. As you improve your own communication, you’ll grow through what we call the Four Levels of Business Communication. The more skilled your communication, the higher your communication level.

This article reviews the distinct levels of business communication, tailored to a global context. We will explore four progressive levels: 

  • No Hesitation
  • Engaging in Discussion
  • Promoting Discussion, and 
  • Facilitating

Each level has its own set of skills and strategies, allowing professionals like you to navigate conversations and interactions with confidence and finesse.

Whether you’re a newcomer to international business or a seasoned professional seeking to improve your communication abilities, this article will be a valuable resource. By diving into effective communication at various stages, you’ll be equipped to create strong connections, create productive discussions, and successfully lead meetings without serious cultural boundary problems.

Review: Direct and Indirect Team Player Styles

Before we jump into each level, let’s review Indirect and Direct team player styles: 

In Indirect Team Cultures employees:

  1. Express that they are paying attention through listening without interrupting . 
  2. Show concern by sharing any disagreement privately rather than in a meeting
  3. Are thoughtful, waiting for others to respond first
  4. Strengthen the team by focusing on harmony and consensus
  5. Hold meetings to formally approve a decision that has already been made in informal discussions. 

An indirect communication style is especially effective when everyone on a team shares the same native communication culture.

In Direct Team Cultures, employees:

  1. Express that they are paying attention by sharing comments and opinions
  2. Show concern by expressing disagreement openly and immediately
  3. Are thoughtful by asking others direct questions and giving feedback
  4. Strengthen the team by focusing on individual strengths
  5. Hold meetings to either debate viewpoints, brainstorming ideas, or make decisions.

A direct communication style is especially effective when everyone on a team is from a different native communication culture. 

This is why many of the communication levels favor Direct Team Player rules.

Communication Level 1: No Hesitation

What it is

Communication Level 1 is the ability to comment and answer unexpected questions without hesitation.

The key phrase here is “No Hesitation.”

We usually hesitate when we are unsure of how to respond. By mastering Level 1, you will be on your way to becoming more at ease in potentially stressful situations.

What happens when you hesitate too often to participate in a meeting? For example, when colleagues are quiet in meetings, Direct Team Players may think, “Why is Mari in this meeting if she doesn’t speak?”  “Ken doesn’t seem interested in our discussion.  He doesn’t share his opinion or ask questions. Why is he here?

Additionally, in the Direct Team Player style, not asking questions actually signals that you understand completely. So, for example, if you are unclear on some point, not asking a clarifying question can be risky, if you are asked to comment later about that same point!  

This makes asking questions without hesitating extremely important, even if you have to interrupt! Stopping the speaker with a question is a skill and a normal part of conversation.

Many people tell me they have difficulty thinking of questions, especially for business.

We recommend using topic categories to be ready for questions. You can learn about the topic categories we recommend in Chapter 4.

To get comfortable, before the meeting, try practicing in your native language first and then in your non-language language. 

With a bit of practice, asking and answering questions will become natural, allowing you to more easily join the discussion, without hesitation!

When it goes wrong

When Level One communication goes wrong, communication fails to happen. Here’s what that can look like:

  • Person A makes a request, but Person B doesn’t understand or ask a clarifying question. They fulfill the wrong request.
  • Person A is always silent during meetings. Their boss begins to think that they don’t care about team success.
  • Person A calls on Person B for a comment during the meeting. Person B hasn’t been taking notes, and doesn’t have a comment ready. They make a comment after some time, but it’s not very meaningful.

When it goes right

When Level One Communication goes right, both the listener and the speaker understand the main points being communicated!

Communication Level 2: Engaging in Discussions

What it is

Communication Level 2 is the ability to engage and influence others in discussion.

The key word here is ’engage’.  

To review, Level 1 is about volunteering or sharing information with each other. In Level 2, you use the shared information to have deeper discussions, collaborating to plan, solve problems, and gain insight.

Remember, in direct communication cultures, not asking a question signals that you understand. However, there is another unwritten rule about being quiet: If you don’t disagree, you are quietly agreeing

Within Direct Team Player cultures, people usually disagree directly. However, that is not always easy to do in Indirect Team Player cultures. To softly give your opinion or feedback in any culture, we recommend the Opinion Sandwich technique, which you’ll learn in Chapter 5. 

The Opinion Sandwich creates opportunities for deeper discussion and problem solving, which is the whole point of Level 2!

This kind of opinion and feedback is an essential way to build work relationships. Consider this: to whom are you more grateful? The person who says nothing when you have food on your face, or the friend who tells you so you can fix it? Being able to engage by speaking up is a vital skill. 

When it goes wrong

Here are some examples of how Communication Level 2 can go wrong:

  • Person A doesn’t know how to communicate their opinion without accidentally offending someone. As a result, they don’t speak up at all. Unfortunately, their opinion could have solved the problem.
  • Person B is always agreeing with everyone else. They don’t want to rock the boat, so they never say anything that might be controversial. This can prevent the group from having productive discussions.
  • Person C is always negative. They find fault with everything that is said. This can make it difficult for the group to move forward and make decisions.
  • Meetings in general feel too long and unproductive.

When it goes right

When Communication Level 2 goes right, everyone’s opinions are heard, and teams are successfully able to have deep discussions, collaborate to plan, solve problems, and gain insight.

Communication Level 3: Promoting Discussions

What it is

Communication Level 3 is the ability to structure and deliver influential messages that develop into discussions.

The key word here is influence.

In Level 2, we learned to give opinions. Now, in Level 3, we will use a framework to make our ideas logical and persuasive. If your discussion or presentation seems illogical, you risk looking unprepared or unknowledgeable. 

Level 3 helps you 

  1. Show your logic with a clear message and supporting data. No excess info.
  2. Motivate people to think or do something specific after your discussion.
  3. Make your presentations interactive by asking questions (rhetorical or not!) in key sections.

These skills make you more influential. To better structure your messages, try this…

Apply a simple, logical framework to clearly communicate your message. Learn this skill now by reading Chapter 6!

Use VCR (Value/Cost/Risk) categories here to quickly focus your thinking. You’ll learn this skill in Chapter 4!

Defend your thinking or logic. You will almost always be challenged by someone asking “Why?”.  If you prepare, you can answer without hesitation (a Level 1 skill!).

When it goes wrong

Here are some examples of when Communication Level 3 goes wrong:

  • Person A goes on long tangents that are not relevant to the topic at hand. They never seem to want to stay on topic, and they often derail the discussion. This can be frustrating for other employees who are trying to have a productive discussion.
  • Person B rambles on and on without making any clear points. This can be confusing and difficult to follow.

When it goes right

When Communication Level 3 goes well, employees are able to express meaningful ideas in an easy-to-understand way. These ideas are relevant to the business outcomes being discussed. 

Communication Level 4: Facilitating Meetings

What it is

Communication Level 4 is the ability to influence decisions by organizing and facilitating multicultural groups.

The key word here is facilitate

That means supporting people so they all are engaged. 

Level four applies all the unwritten rules to expand the level of influence you have at work. 

Communication Level 4 skills combine with the skills in levels 1-3 and can enhance your Communication DNA. The combination of these many skills into one is called a global skill. Most of the great leaders you know are Level 4 Communicators.

LEVEL 4 TIPS:

  1. Set goals: Structure your agenda with clear objectives and outcomes.
  2. Manage risk: Prepare responses for potential questions, challenges or disagreements.
  3. Unwritten rules: Be aware of the unwritten rules of those attending. This builds trust!
  4. Verbal engagement: Know who is in the room so you can plan on how to engage them. Use your comments & questions to guide their thinking.
  5. Visual engagement: Use technology such as translation apps. I often put the agenda with questions on the screen in 2 languages for ease of understanding. And I type in answers so all can easily see the translation. Having both languages up, promotes deeper discussion.
  6. Summarize points: Do mini-summaries to keep the discussion on track. Ask questions to confirm and to deepen understanding of everyone. Summaries show you are listening and also gives your audience an opportunity to correct or add information. This builds understanding, trust and visibility for you.

By following these tips, your ability to lead engaging and insightful discussions will improve! 

When it goes wrong

Here are a few examples of what happens when Communication Level 4 goes wrong: 

  • Participants are not prepared and do not have all the information they need to contribute.
  • The meeting has no clear agenda.
  • The meeting goes off-topic and does not stay focused on the task at hand. The meeting facilitator does not keep the discussion on track.
  • There is no clear decision-making process and people are not sure how to make decisions.
  • The meeting is not well-documented and there is no clear record of what was discussed and decided.
  • Not all participants are included in the discussion, favoring employees from one culture or country over another.

When it goes right

When Communication Level 4 goes right, everyone is prepared and on the same page, the meeting has a clear agenda, and all participants feel as though they have contributed to the purpose of the meeting, whether that be making a decision, debating options, or formalizing a decision that has already been informally made.

Using the Direct and Indirect Rules of Communication to Improve

In this chapter, you learned about the levels of communication. Where do you fall on the communication spectrum? 

In the next chapter, you’ll learn the direct and indirect rules of communication. You can use these rules to understand where to improve your own communication skills!

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