Interpersonal Communication and the Awareness Gap

Have you noticed that when you communicate with another person, sometimes you get a wonderfully effective exchange of information that leaves both of you changed for the better, and other times you just seem to butt heads with both of you only becoming more entrenched in your views?

What’s the difference?

The difference is that when you and the other person are at a compatible level of awareness, communication will be smooth and effortless. But when your awareness levels are incompatible, communication is largely ineffective. Anything you say will simply fall on deaf ears.

The Awareness Gap

Awareness incompatibility is a matter of degree rather than essence, a sliding scale if you will. The bigger the “awareness gap” between you and the other person, the less effective will be your communication. The smaller the awareness gap, the more effective your communication. Communication friction is therefore a function of the magnitude of the awareness gap between you and the other person.

How do you measure the size of the awareness gap, and how do you know which person is at a higher level of awareness than the other?

Generally speaking, the higher awareness person is the one who’s more at peace with him/herself. With a little practice, it’s usually easy to tell which person in any situation is at a higher level of awareness than the other. For a complete list of awareness levels in order from lowest to highest, see Levels of Consciousness. By using that list as a guide, you can count how many levels separate you and the other person.

The specific reaction you get when you communicate will depend heavily on the awareness gap between you and the other person. If the gap is narrow, you can expect a reaction based mainly on the content and intent of your communication. Two people at similar levels of awareness will tend to communicate very effectively. But if the gap is wide, then instead of reacting to the content of your communication, the other person will react more to the gap itself.

Recognizing the Gap

This is not so much a problem to be solved as a situation to be accepted. When you recognize the role of awareness gaps in your communication, you will be able to listen more effectively. You will be able to discern when the other person’s response is actually providing you with valid feedback on your statements vs. when it’s really providing information about the other person’s level of awareness relative to yours.

With the high traffic levels receives, you may imagine I get a lot of reader feedback. You’d be right. But typically only a small fraction of the feedback I receive will actually influence my actions, even when detailed suggestions are included. Why? Because most of the feedback I receive is mainly about the other person’s reaction than it is about my actual content. I still consider this valuable feedback because it helps me know my readers better and understand the issues they face, but it usually isn’t actionable. Often the seemingly actionable feedback is contradictory. An article I write may receive both praise and criticism which has little to do with the article itself but rather with the relative awareness levels of the people reading it. On the other hand, there are times when I receive feedback that I’ll act on almost immediately because I recognize that the feedback is indeed about my work and not merely the person’s unique personal reaction to it.

For example, suppose I write an article about my views on the afterlife, such as Life After Death. Upon posting such an article, I may receive a scathing 2000-word email from a Christian fundamentalist (wouldn’t be the first time), giving me a list of dogmatic counter-arguments to my statements. However, such feedback is wasted on me. I won’t even read the whole thing once I can see where it’s going, and I usually won’t bother to respond, except maybe to say something like, “You amuse me” (which is the truth). Why don’t I regard such emails as genuinely useful feedback on my content? Because religious fundamentalism falls at a fairly low awareness level, too low to be helpful to me. On the levels of consciousness scale, a fundamentalist philosophy will typically fall between the levels of desire and pride, which is below the average level of awareness for conscious human beings (courage). This is also well below the level of awareness at which I normally write (willingness and higher). So the awareness gap is simply too large, and such feedback says more about the gap than it does about my actual content. Hence, it isn’t actionable except perhaps in a very general sense.

What you’re reading right now would likely fall at the level of reason. If you’re at this level of awareness yourself or one level below it (acceptance), you may find it helpful, interesting, insightful, or even actionable. Below this level you probably will have already stopped reading, claiming my writing makes your brain hurt. And above this level you may merely give it a ho-hum nod; your perspective may be such that my statements simply don’t apply to you because you’ve already moved past this level of awareness.

Bridging the Gap

Even when the awareness gap is very wide, it can still be bridged if meaningful communication is desired. In order for this to happen, both people must move to a similar level of awareness. The most effective way for this to work is that the higher awareness person temporarily lowers their energy to the other person’s level and then gradually leads him/her back up to a middle ground.

For example, suppose you feel very peaceful and happy (high awareness), and your partner comes to you upset and starts yelling at you angrily (low awareness). Little communication will occur in this situation because the gap is too great. You may choose to remain in a state of peace and ignore your partner’s temper tantrum, but another option is to lower your energy down to his/her level and start yelling right back, even if you have to fake your anger at first. Then as you both work through this anger, you can gradually raise your energy back up again and bring your partner along with you. Once you reach an acceptable level of awareness that feels comfortable to both of you, real communication can occur — a meaningful exchange of information that isn’t merely about the awareness gap itself.

This process works, but it can be very time consuming and unpredictable. If you’re the higher awareness person, you’ll need sufficient leverage on the lower awareness person (so they don’t simply give up and leave the room) as well as plenty of patience to work through their initial defensiveness. Face to face communication is almost a necessity. It might work over the phone too, but it would be really hard to do it via email.

I think of this as the process of resonance. If I want to help someone raise their level of awareness, first I must resonate with them, so we’re both vibrating at the same frequency, so to speak. Then if I change my own frequency gradually enough, the other person will come along for the ride.

This is how impactful human communication works, although you may not have been aware of it. If you’ve ever seen a talented motivational speaker in action, you may notice they often begin speaking at the audience’s level of awareness — a fairly mild opening is common, like “It’s great to be here with you in Vegas this morning.” But once they’ve built rapport with you (i.e. awareness compatibility), they can lead you on an awareness rollercoaster as long as their shifts are gradual enough. A common situation is to take an audience that’s at the level of neutrality and lead them to the next level up, which is willingness. This is what great sales trainers often do. Whether or not that new level of awareness sticks is a whole other matter; usually the boost is only temporary.

Awareness of Awareness

One of the best skills you can develop is the ability to become aware of your own awareness level. Check out the levels of consciousness scale, and see if you can identify your level right now. Then as you encounter people through your day, see if you can identify their awareness levels too. When you interact with people, notice the size of the awareness gap between you, and compare it to the effectiveness of your communication. Is your communication deep and meaningful, is it merely superficial fluff that’s soon forgotten, or is it high-friction head butting?

As you gain the ability to identify awareness levels, your communication effectiveness with other people will increase dramatically, at least on a one-on-one basis. With groups of people, effective communication is always more of a challenge because you must target the average awareness level of the group at first and hope to pick up others along the way.

Don’t waste time butting heads as soon as you realize the awareness gap is the culprit. If you’re the high awareness person, drop your awareness down to collect the other person, and then slowly raise him/her up to a higher level. And if you’re the low awareness person, inform the other person your awareness level is too low to have a meaningful exchange, and ask for his/her help, or simply postpone the conversation to another time. For example, if I’m emotionally exhausted and my wife wants to discuss her day with me, I may tell her my awareness level is too low to listen. In that situation she knows that if she wants to have the conversation she intended, she needs to stop and help me raise my energy first. She might give me some space to relax, or she might offer me a massage to help me let go of any tension quickly. Once my awareness level has rebounded, I’m usually able to listen attentively.