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The Three Levels of Communication

When you hear the word “communication”, you probably think about talking. But communication includes so much more: body language, tone of voice, proximity to the other person, facial expression, etc. Even NOT communicating can be communicating. An important piece of communication is the idea that there are three levels to communication: report, command, and context. In order to have the most effective communication with others, it is important to take each of the levels into consideration.

Report is the actual words you say to someone, and command is all the elements that help the other person figure out the meaning of the words, including body language, facial expressions, speed, tone, etc. Context is how the specific situation, including location, time, etc., impact how the message is received (Lederer & Jackson, 1968). If the three don’t match up, miscommunication and misunderstanding can happen. For example, imagine that someone thanks their partner for their help with a task but says it with a loud, angry tone of voice. The tone does not match the actual words that the person said, which can lead to confusion for the receiving partner. Another example would be a parent reprimanding a child with a smile on their face or while laughing.

One way to work on this element of communication is to repeat back what you heard to the other person to make sure you are receiving the message accurately, or ask a question to clarify the meaning of the message if you are unsure. So often couples and families engage in conflict due to mismatched report, command, and context. Without clarifying to make sure that how you interpreted the message is correct, arguments can follow.

Couples and/or family therapy can be a great place to work on these three levels of communication in real time. A therapist can help you and your partner/family members see where your report and command may not match up. A therapist can also help teach you skills to enhance these pieces of your communication and coach and support you as you practice them in session.


Lederer, W. J. & Jackson, D. D. (1968) The mirages of marriage. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

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