Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey – Workplace Culture Experts & Barefoot Wine Founders

By Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey – Workplace Culture Experts & Barefoot Wine Founders

The Communication Hierarchy

The Communication Hierarchy 150 150 MIchael and Bonnie Harvey

Cosmo, our Bengal cat, is spayed. But that doesn’t prevent him from sniffing things out or marking his territory. It is fascinating how much information is shared with just one spray. He knows everything about the other cat—where they’ve been, how often they stop by, and who they are. He uses many other means of communication too, including body language, to tell us what he thinks and wants. He cries in different ways that tell us if he’s hungry, just caught an animal, or wants to take a walk. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if us humans could communicate that easily and efficiently?

Not only do we have much more to say, but we also have a few more ways to say it. That’s the tricky part. We have to communicate our message clearly and effectively in order to avoid misunderstandings. By understanding the values and limitations of each communication method, we will be able to use them the right way.

You can choose to talk to anyone via email, text, telephone, video, or in person. Sure, we can use other methods, like audio recordings, video recordings, and social media platforms. We can even go the traditional route and write a letter. But for business purposes, we depend on the big 5 when it comes to communication methods. Let’s discuss each method’s strengths and weaknesses so we can make the right decision every time.

Communication Methods: The Big 5

1. Communicating in person
Through experience, we’ve found that face-to-face communication is the number 1 way to effectively get your message across, especially when you’re getting approval on a proposal or making a sale. This is why:

First of all, you actually see who you’re talking to, in real-time. You can see their to-the-second reactions to what you say. Misunderstandings can be prevented. With its 20-plus muscles, the face can create hundreds of unique expressions. Why not use this constant and powerful feedback to absolve differences and misinterpretations as they occur? A person’s body language can also tell you if they’re truly interested, or getting defensive.

Secondly, they know they have your undivided attention. You aren’t multitasking or checking your messages. This conveys a singular commitment of your energy and time. You have the benefit of the doubt! You have nothing to hide behind, and you may have to answer difficult questions. This shows you’re sincere, and it’ll build a bond that will foster a sense of familiarity in your relationship.

For first meetings with anybody important, this method is crucial and to display your continued commitment to repeat customers. Of course there are drawbacks—it’s time-consuming, you can’t multitask, travel might be involved, and you’re put on the spot.

2.  Communicating via video

When you aren’t able to meet in person, video is the best option. It has most of the same advantages without the inconvenience of traveling. And, you can meet with more than one person at the same time no matter where they are. Communicating over video is great for meetings where everyone’s looking at the same document or presentation, and it’s a great way to get the positive benefits of communicating face-to-face.

When you can see someone’s face, even on a screen, you’re more likely to assume they have good intentions. This is why we prefer video over telephone. The drawbacks that come with video communication are poor user knowledge (where applicable), the possibility of poor connection, and the fact that different platforms have different features.

3. Communicating via telephone

Talking on the phone is much more personal than email, and it happens in real time. It’s easy to immediately figure out a misunderstanding that might’ve occurred over email. Once your emails go back and forth trying to prove a point or figure something out, it’s time to pick up the phone. After all, nobody ever said all of your communication must be in writing!

Speaking on the phone also allows for intention and tone. You can tell by their voice if you’re agitated or sincere. Their tone might tell you if today isn’t a good time to discuss a certain issue, for example. Imagine blindly continuing email communication without being able to provide and receive this crucial level of feedback!

When it comes to two-way conversations, we prefer phone over email. But the phone is less personal than video—you can’t read the other person’s facial expressions. It’s much easier for the other person to interrupt or be abrupt. When you talk on the phone, you’re only a voice. It feels like you aren’t as worthy of respect as someone who can be seen. After initially introducing yourself via video or in person, using the phone to communicate is ideal.

4. Communicating via email

Communicating via email is an effective way to document what was said during a phone call or meeting. It’s also good for transmitting documents. On the other hand, it might be the worst way to have a disagreement. Each side feels obliged to have the last word. And if you want to change your mind, guess what? Your message exists forever. When communicating through email, some things are better left unsaid.

Most people have yet to discover the behavioral expectations that come with email communication. For example, if you have a list of requests, your recipient is likely to only address the last one. To get around this, we always recommend one email per request. And if the paragraphs in your email aren’t short enough, your recipient won’t read them. We recommend always cutting your paragraphs off at 3-4 lines. We’ve written at length about getting the most out of your emails, all based on real procedures we used in our business.

The biggest drawbacks to email communication are the risk of not having your message heard because of too much text, misunderstandings that result in a never-ending back-and-forth, saying something you may end up regretting later, and the overall impersonal nature of an email message in itself.

5. Communicating via text

Communicating via text is a great idea when you can’t speak in person or on the phone. It’s also a good way to keep everyone updated about the status of a meeting, for example. Keeping up with friends and family is also ideal to do over text. But you’d better be close to the other party—this level of communication can put someone off if they don’t feel as familiar as you do.

Texting is an efficient way to send addresses and talk to people who are en-route to a destination. Despite texting being more and more common these days, it’s still an extremely limited communication method with many drawbacks.

The person you’re texting may not yet know your name and may only see your phone number. This can get frustrating. We suggest that you give your name in any initial message, or if you believe you might not be in their address book. Most people send text messages in short bursts. If they know you, this comes across as sincere and personal. If they don’t know you, this comes across as irritating. Be careful of saying something you might regret later, despite the guise of it being a more personal way to communicate. Texting makes it easy for people to think they are connected 24/7, leading someone to potentially become offended if they don’t receive a response as soon as they’d like.


Just like Cosmo, our cat, you must choose your communication methods wisely. Make sure they’re appropriate for the party you’re speaking with, and for the type of message you want to convey. Consider the pros and cons of each method—use all of them to reinforce one another. Respect the communication tool hierarchy. And don’t forget—in-person face-to-face will always be at the top!

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