The 4 Sides of a Message

When talking to another person, everybody has a natural way to communicate with each other. People like me, don’t like to think all too much about how we phrase things, we just… talk. More than once this got me into trouble. Not because I tried to insult the other person, or because my friends and I enjoy scrabbling with each other. The reason was another. People can understand messages in a different way than how they were intended.

A German psychologist by the name of Schulz von Thun developed a model, which explains why messages can get “lost in translation”. He named his model: “the four-ears model”. In his model, he describes, how the difference between what is said and what is understood comes to be. Basically, there are four parts of a message. Four things you can take away from every sentence you speak or which is spoken to you.

In order to make the model more accessible, I will use a practical example. Imagine the following: You are in a car with your best friend, you are the driver. On a long straight stretch, your friend says: “You are allowed to drive 100km/h”. What do you take away from this sentence? I, myself, would think, that I don’t drive fast enough for my friend and he/she wants to get to our destination quickly. But that may not be the case.

First Part – Factual Level

The factual level, much as the name implies, states facts or transfers data from one person to the other. In this case: The speed limit on this road is 100km/h. This part of the message is neither positive nor negative, just facts.

Second Part – Self-revealing

Every message carries news and information about the sender. The information can be intentional or unintentionally released. Henceforth, with every word said to you, you can learn something about the person saying it. In our example it could be something like this: I’m in a hurry. I’m annoyed by driving slowly.

Third Part – Relationship Indicator

Thirdly, messages carry implications about the relationship between the person send and the person receiving the message, called the relationship indicator. There are two sides two this part of the message. The you-statement, which expresses what I think about you and the we-statement, which indicates how we get along.

Many factors can play into this third aspect of the message (body language, formulation, intonation). As one might guess, this communicational layer expresses how sender and receiver get along; does the sender express respect, friendliness, contempt, disinterest, etc.?

Based on these indicators, the person listening to the words or reading the message can draw conclusions. Conclusions might be, that the person feels antagonized, accepted, depressed, angry, etc.

In the example of driving with a friend the relationship indicator could be: “I’m a better driver than you, that’s why I have to tell you how fast you can drive.”

Fourth Part – Appeal

Lastly, the appeal: what do I want to make you do? What is the intended consequence from the words which were spoken?

The approach towards the desired action, or the refrain from an action, can be made in different ways, open, “I would do this or that” or it can be done more hidden “I think a good idea would be (…)”. As the person receiving the message or hearing the words, the following question should arise: “What do I do with this information? What do I do, feel, think now?” In our example, the message is a bit more hidden, but the appeal is rather clear: “drive faster!

Even though the model states something we all know and unconsciously use to assess situations and people, it can be a great help to have it as a tool to actively use. Especially interesting is the application of this model in a work environment, where you meet new people every day. It can help you phrase opening statements if you ask yourself: “What does this imply as a relationship indicator? Does it sound arrogant or does it imply eye-level communication?”

You can also use this model in your private life. When I was arguing with my mother or my girlfriend, I would ask myself: “What is the factual message here? What is to cause of his/her excitement?”. Once I found the core of their excitement, I could start tending to the problem, instead of wasting energy, trying to deal with their (usually justified) anger directly.

Since knowing this model and the theory behind it, the incidents of miscommunication have gone back. I was able to adopt a more effective communication.

Henry Leschig
The Infinity

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