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Intimacy: the five levels of communication.

Been wanting to write about this since winter, but I had forgotten some details of “the five levels of communication” and didn’t bother looking them up until last night. Here’s the long overdue post.

1.) The opening scene.

I wasn’t looking forward to going home for Winter Break. Berkeley had become an effective distraction from non school-related stressors. Two days after flying home, I was invited to have lunch with my extended family… the dreaded Chongs. Inter-family competition imposed on me and all, I’ve had a man vs. self battle against them for a good portion of my life.

My three cousins are all male and are [I think] 7, 9, and 11 years older than me. With the age gap and only seeing them come annual holidays, conversations never submerged past the surface level. Only in recent years did I hold deeper conversations with them. At age 18, I spoke with the youngest cousin for two hours after my back was tattooed. At age 19 & 20, the eldest cousin and I established deeper roots after he became a married man. Which left the middle cousin unchecked.

At the circular table in the restaurant, I observed my cousins and their wives talking nonstop. They articulated their jobs, the Occupy movement, latest news in sports, up-and-coming technological advancements, whatever. I sat and stared enviously as they maintained a highly enthusiastic level of interaction. Envy turned to sadness and I eventually voiced my admiration for them. “I wish my sister and I were as close as you guys.” I spent the next five minutes telling them how, for years, I had been discontent with the relationship that my sister and I possess.

The middle cousin spoke. This is the same cousin that haunted my sister and I as kids. The one who had “gangster” friends, who got an ear piercing, who appeared intimidating and scary. The one who was issued a suspension from high school for threatening to kick someone’s ass. The one who punched a hole in his room, who knocked the hinges off his door. Yeah, that’s Richard.

Richard introduced me to the five levels of communication, something that his Christian pastor had taught him. I’d like to share what I learned from him.

2.) The five levels of communication.

Due to the overwhelming need to feel safe, people generally don’t like to show intimacy for fears of lowering their guard, revealing vulnerabilities, and/or getting hurt. Therefore, they choose to talk through different levels of communication which supersede the previous in terms of intimacy. Most relationships do not exist past the first two or three levels, again due to aforementioned fears. The five are as follows:

  1. Cliches – an expression or an idea. “How are you?” or “What’s up?” Nothing you say has negative implications; you’re merely expressing an idea or thought.
  2. Facts – saying something that is true. “It’s sunny outside.” or “The midterm is tomorrow.” You’re only expressing a fact which isn’t endangering.
  3. Opinions – safely sharing a personal thought. “I don’t think the Lakers will get to the playoffs this season.” or “My roommate wears too much cologne.”
  4. Feelings – more difficult to do. “What are your thoughts on…” or “I love you.”
  5. Needs – the most difficult to accomplish. “What do you need to be happy?” or “I really need you to keep me company.”

Effective communication is the best way to deepen intimacy in any relationship. The problem is that most people want to operate within their safety zone, and thus, are hesitant on exposing themselves to hurt. When some people traverse through the first three levels and feel unsafe, they’ll revert back to the safe cliches and facts; they’ll refrain from moving towards feelings and needs.

The more stubborn people are, the more obstacles they’ll have to face in forming good relationships. Keeping oneself busy is a good deterrence from furthering intimacy; the less quality time spent in a relationship, the less chances there will be to build a healthy one.

3.) The discussion.

Based on what I told him, Richard informed me that there seemed to be an imbalance on what I sought in communicating with my sister. Whereas she was comfortable being in the first couple stages, I was willing to risk feeling exposed to deepen our relationship. To my astonishment, he also mentioned that he and his brothers only got closer after starting their careers. According to the eldest cousin, they also grew closer through Christ who established a commonality amongst them. Before then, he revealed that they used to fight a lot and didn’t converse past the surface level.

He went on to say that it takes time to form the tight-knit bonds that I sought after, that it takes mutual cooperation to create and maintain it, and that both parties must be willing to take risks in being/feeling vulnerable. He encouraged me to remain patient and persevere; to respect my sister’s disposition while gently asserting my own. Which brings me to an important quote that I try to follow.

4.) “In order to grow, you need to be out of your comfort zone.”

Part of my disposition is an all-or-nothing mentality. Be it academics, sports, hobbies, and talents, or relationships, I don’t follow a tit-for-tat or half-assed strategy. I either give it my all, or I don’t even try. That’s the way I am. Even when I have doubts about my capability or resolve, I will continue to give things my all until there exists no purpose in doing so.

By reflecting on my relationship with others, I realize just how quickly I am to categorize those I deem “worthy” or “unworthy” in investing my personal time to. As judgmental as that sounds (it is), I use the five levels of communication to re-categorize the unworthy to worthy people (and vice versa); therefore, I challenge my own judgments on people by comfortably exposing a piece of me. In abiding by another quote, “surround yourself with people that lift you higher,” those who display consistent standards stay in my life while those who yield no benefits are stored in the corner.

Although this mentality pertains directly to myself and how I perceive the world, I feel that the risk-seeking aspect should be sought out by all. In my humble opinion, part of living is to learn and grow oneself through exposure to different, and perhaps uncomfortable, medium.

5. The conclusion.

After that day with the Chongs, my prior judgment of Richard was altered into a much more positive light. I never expected to hear such insight from him, nor expected him to be patient enough to explain it to me. I said in the beginning that I hadn’t been looking forward to go home; I ended up spending a good portion of Winter Break with the extended family, and they made it a memorable month.

Months later, I feel that my sister and I have been growing progressively closer. Like many of my close friends, I don’t speak to her on a consistent basis; those who are closest to me are oftentimes strangers for days, weeks, and months. I’m glad that she has supported me every time I’ve needed her, and it’s a good feeling knowing that I can count on her assistance.

Lastly, relationships and intimacy are but one medium for growth. Despite having doubts and uncertainties, I give it my all to ensure that the expectations on my end of the mutual spectrum have been met. I’m willing to tread into feelings and needs in the five levels of communications, to eventually expose myself to those that bear significance on my life. I’m just as scared as the next person, but I’m willing to invest, sacrifice, and be hurt.

I urge you all to do the same.

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