You want to have more meaningful conversations?
That’s easy. I mean, really, that’s super simple. It only takes one thing. If you have it, your conversation is meaningful, and if you don’t, your conversation isn’t meaningful. There’s only one thing that makes the difference.
What’s the one thing?
That’s right. Intimacy. But I’m not talking about sex or pleasure or the things our culture tells us that intimacy is. Intimacy isn’t sex or pleasure. Intimacy is self-revelation. It’s me revealing myself to you, and you revealing yourself to me. To be known and to know. That is intimacy. And intimacy is at the heart of every meaningful conversation.
But here’s the real problem: intimacy is hard. It’s hard to reveal yourself to someone else. So many times—even with the people we love—we think, “Yeah, you say you love me. But if you really knew me, then you wouldn’t love me anymore.” That’s the opposite of intimacy. That’s loneliness. Don’t be mistaken—you can be lonely in a relationship. You can be lonely in a crowded room. You can be lonely with a smile on your face, a successful career, a great car, and everything else the world tells us will make us happy.
You can have all that and still be lonely.
The secret to happiness isn’t having what you want. It’s having what you need.
What we need is a model for communication that helps us understand and build intimacy. A model that helps us understand our conversations on a deeper level, and gives us a path to deeper intimacy and more meaningful conversations.
That’s where the seven levels of intimacy come in. The seven levels of intimacy make up a model for communication that will help you see your conversations in a whole new light and navigate the waters of self-revelation. Once you are familiar with it, you won’t be able to stop yourself from using it. The seven levels will be all around you. You’ll see where you are, and you’ll see how to make any conversation more meaningful. Here’s a brief overview of the seven levels of intimacy.
Level One: Cliches
“How are you?”
“What’s going on?”
“Same old, same old.”
“Living the dream.”
At the first level of communication we speak only in cliches. If you have a teenager, you know teens are the masters of this level of communication.
Cliches are used to avoid intimacy. We reveal nothing and nothing is revealed to us. But cliches can also bridge the gap to the second level of intimacy . . .
Level Two: Facts
What do we talk about on this level? The weather. And the weather. And the football game. And the stock market. And the weather. And what we had for dinner. And the weather.
This level produces something that can even pass as a conversation between two people on an elevator, but still, nothing is being revealed about the other person. You can have an entire conversation—albeit an absolutely meaningless conversation—at the level of facts.
Can facts lead to intimacy? Sure. But more often than not, like cliches, they are used to avoid it.
Level Three: Opinions
Now the fun begins. This third level is the Pandora’s box of communication. We all get in trouble here from time to time.
This is where all the trouble begins because we all have different opinions. Get a crowd together and you won’t find two people with the exact same set of beliefs and opinions. But when we meet someone who has a different opinion than us, we act shocked. We act like we have to fight out our differing opinions.
This level can come with a certain amount of tension, but it’s undeniable that a conversation at this level is more meaningful than the two before it. What does it take to have healthy conversation at this level? Acceptance.
“Intimacy is the one thing that a person cannot live happily without.”
The Seven Levels of Intimacy by Matthew Kelly
Accepting that the person across the table from you has a different education and different experience than you have. Accepting that the person across the table from you is on a journey and that, over the course of a lifetime, opinions change. Accepting that, even if someone has a different opinion than you, you don’t have to fight those opinions out.
Acceptance is the key to a healthy and meaningful conversation at the third level of intimacy.
Level Four: Hopes and Dreams
Hopes and dreams. We all have them. Every person on the planet has hopes and dreams. Nothing brings us to life like chasing down a dream. And nothing is more satisfying than helping someone else chase down a dream.
When you hear someone else’s dream, you immediately begin to daydream about how you can help them achieve it.
Dreams are all around us. Sharing those dreams brings us to a whole new level of self-revelation. What’s amazing and easily overlooked about this level is how natural and easy it is to become an advocate for someone else when they share their dreams with you.
When you hear someone else’s dream, you immediately begin to daydream about how you can help them achieve it. You don’t decide to do that—it just happens. And how do you feel towards someone who has helped you achieve your dreams? You’ll do anything for that person.
That’s mutual self-giving. That’s intimacy. When you share your hopes and dreams with someone else, that’s a meaningful conversation.
Level Five: Feelings
Yes. We’re going to talk about our feelings.
Some people will tell you that the secret to a meaningful conversation on this level is understanding. They’re wrong.
Sure, sometimes feelings are easy to understand . . .
“How are you?”
“Why are you great?”
“I bought a new car!”
“How are you?”
“Why are you terrible?”
“Someone stole my new car.”
But many times, feelings just aren’t that simple. Sometimes they just can’t be understood. Trying to have a meaningful conversation around understanding feelings often leads to frustration. The key to a meaningful conversation on this level is our old friend acceptance.
You don’t need to understand all the feelings your coworkers, neighbors, friends, spouse, or children have. Sometimes you just need to come alongside them, let them know that it’s okay to feel in front of you, and assure them that you will be with them no matter what. A conversation like that might not have many words, but it will surely be meaningful.
Level Six: Faults, Fears, and Failures.
Fear is a primal driver of the human person and it will drive you away from your pursuit of the-best-version-of-yourself if you let it. The most important thing is knowing your fears.
Do you know your fears? Do you know the fears of the people around you? We are driven crazy by our fears. When we are driven by fear we do things we would never normally do and say things we would never normally say. Fears affect us in powerful ways.
These motivations are fascinating. When we see them, it’s an incredible insight into what is going on around us. Sure, what people do and what people say is interesting, but why they do it and why they say it is fascinating.
For example, when we are at the third level of intimacy and someone shares an opinion, we have to ask: Where did that opinion come from? Why is that your opinion?
You weren’t born with opinions! They didn’t come pre-installed. So what happened to give you that? What did you do and what was done to you to give you that opinion? What did you learn or see or experience that lead you to that opinion?
That’s intimacy. The opinion is one level, but the why, now that’s a whole other level. You want to have a more meaningful conversation? Get beyond the fear or the opinion, and get to the why.
Intimacy is self-revelation and the why is where we reveal ourselves. And nothing kills intimacy like fear.
Level Seven: Legitimate needs.
We all have the same basic legitimate needs in the four aspects of the human person: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual.
When you share your legitimate needs and understand the legitimate needs of those around you, life flourishes.
The problem is that we spend an insane amount of time avoiding or neglecting these legitimate needs in favor of other things that we want. Why? Because somewhere along the way we were duped into believing that the secret to happiness is having what you want. But the secret to happiness isn’t having what you want. It’s having what you need.
This is the pinnacle of intimacy: mutually sharing your legitimate needs with another and helping each other build a life around them. When you share your legitimate needs and understand the legitimate needs of those around you, life flourishes. How much more meaningful can a conversation become than when it is oriented towards helping someone else live a happy and flourishing life?
The seven levels of intimacy are a model for communication. But they are not a ladder. It’s not like you will wake up in the morning and discuss which level you were at yesterday and which level you hope you will get to today. No, you’ll go in and out of the seven levels all the time. You will go in and out of the seven levels in just one conversation.
What will happen is that you will start to notice the seven levels all over the place. Without even thinking about it you will notice which level you are dealing with. You will recognize them in your conversations. You will be able to decide not only if you want to go deeper, but also how deep you want to go—and you will know how to get there.