Why good communication is really hard

Tales about successful misunderstandings

By Ferdinand Vogler 26.02.2021 6 min read
Imagine a couple. One of them opens the fridge, takes out some food, smells it and then asks their partner “How long has this been in the fridge?”

I bet you have the next sentences already in your mind.

Photo by Frank Busch on Unsplash

“What do you mean? I just cooked it yesterday. Are you saying that I leave food in the fridge to rot?”
“I just wanted to know how long this has been in the fridge.”
“One day. You can still eat it, it’s fresh.”
“But I don’t want to eat it, I just want to make sure we have a clean fridge.”
“So you think our house is dirty?”

“Well, that escalated quickly” you might think. This couple obviously has some hidden conflicts which aren’t taken care of. But communication theory can try to explain what’s actually happening here and how we can learn to become better communicators.

What you say is not what others hear

Some think that human communication is similar to how machines work. A package of information is sent and it gets processed exactly how the sender intended it to.

With humans it works differently: with everything we say, there are multiple ways to interpret it. You could say the same thing to three people and it would be understood differently by each person.

In 1981, German psychologist Friedemann Schulz von Thun came up with the “Four Sides Communication Model”. This model explains that there are four ways in how each message can be said and heard. This builds upon Paul Watzlawicks “Five Axioms”.

“Every communication has a content and relationship aspect such that the latter classifies the former and is therefore a metacommunication.”
All communication includes, apart from the plain meaning of words, more information. This information is based on how the speaker wants to be understood and how he himself sees his relation to the receiver of information. Paul Watzlawick (Wikipedia)

The four layers of communication

  1. Facts
    What I’m informing about. Hard facts and data.
  2. Self-Revelation
    What I tell about myself.
  3. Relationship
    What I think of you and how we get along. This layer is expressed by what words I use, how my intonation is and how my body language matches what I say.
  4. Appeal
    What do I want you to do? — I can be open about it (advice) or want to plant an idea in your head to get you to do something (manipulation).

Demonstrated in a real life situation

Imagine a couple eating dinner at home.
A: “A new restaurant just opened across the street.
B: “Does the food not taste good?”

Sifted through the four layers of communication we could view the situation as follows.

A: “A new restaurant just opened across the street.

Facts: A new restaurant has opened across the street.
Self-Revelation: I am unsatisfied.
Relationship: I would like to go out more often with you.
Appeal: I want to try the new restaurant.

B: “Does the food not taste good?”

Facts: A new restaurant has opened across the street.
Self-Revelation: I am insecure of being enough for my partner.
Relationship: I don’t feel appreciated for what I have cooked.
Appeal: We should go to the restaurant because my food isn’t good.

These four layers are present when you speak (sender) and hear (receiver). What makes matters more difficult: each person puts an emphasis on different layers. If you’re in the Military you will probably adjust your ears to the Facts and Appeal layers and not evaluate your relationship with the sergeant when he screams at you to drop on the floor and “give him twenty”.

How can we manage this complexity?

It’s easy to blame others of understanding you correctly. How often have you heard “but I said it clearly that…”? Design your communication so that you achieve the effect you want to have.

Whenever you say something, right in the next sentence, say why you are asking this question. If what you say could be perceived in a wrong way, get those tensions out of the room. Make your intentions clear.

“Could it be that you’re coughing more recently? I’m not asking because I’m annoyed by it, I just want you to be healthy and I’m worried.”

The same applies if you’re hearing something that is unclear to you. If you’re unsure what the other persons really means, ask how they mean it without implying something. Say how you understood it.

Self-awareness is the first step to improvement. If you encounter conflicting situations, then think of the four layers of communication. Successful communication happens when the receiver understands all four layers.

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