4-ears communication model

Another communications model, presented by Friedemann Schulz von Thun, can perhaps give more insight into how communication comes to life in the field of practice. The 4-ears communication representation is a good reminder of how much information we receive when talking to a person, and can give us anchor points for further talks or hopefully, for action.

Reciting models blindly has rarely been a passion of mine, but I do admit that trying to think within a representation can stimulate creativity and lead me, or you, to better understanding of what is useful. Instead of trying to take the model apart and exercise in hot air redirection, let’s try to see what happens when this set of communication terms and concepts interacts with what we already use in everyday operations.

The model by von Thun is relatively simple – it states that every message has 4 layers of expression, from which information can be derived:

  • the matter layer – containing the factual message
  • the self-revealing layer – carrying implicit information about the person speaking
  • the relationship layer – form of the message revealing the relationship to the person listening
  • the appeal layer – this part builds on the previous and calls for action/non-action from the listener

Many notes can be made on any of the layers. Whether you have primarily concerned yourself with body language or linguistic intricacies of communication, all the layers are present within a message and respectively, in a more wholesome conversation.

Let us move from the topic of the model itself, and focus on a real-life situation, to understand the model better. Given a slightly dysfunctional situation in a work environment, you may notice that the speaker skips the matter layer, or keeps it underdeveloped intentionally. From the rest of the packaged information you can deduct that the person is more interested in establishing a dynamic relationship. All this should be alright, but if these interactions are kept empty of factual content, you may start to question whether the communication is not meant solely for keeping a structure which thrives on facade roles. Sometimes typical of high context environments, the conversations, or exchanges, serve  the purpose of stroking (in the sense of TA) and may take the form of a ritualistic tradition. If progress is made separately with regards to tasks or operational developments, maybe a tradition can nurture trust or battle dynamic levels of anxiety. However, without operational focus, this stroking can leave the person initiating these rituals a slave, in broad terms, to rapport as a target. Further to this, one might deliberately keep this communication lane incomplete to foster inadequate group dynamics.

Another variation of distorted exchange may arise from a tendency to strive to assert one’s self in a parent TA role through the latter three layers in this communication model. This can also leave the first, factual layer, incomplete or even incoherent with stream of events. Used as a form of discrimination, this leaves a limited set of options to the listener. I have personally witnessed how employees keep up this form for a long time, altering their work process, so that the tables are turned – and they are asked for explanations of a result. Deepening the crisis, the employees keep the dynamics intact, also stripping their explanation of the factual message. A great entrance point to the scheme ‘company within the company’ (or team), things can take various reality forms which would be suited to a novel. To any manager, who wants to assess the organizational culture or utilization percentage, I suggest to keep the time and efforts required to keep such a process up with time.

Of course, the last two paragraphs are concerned with somehow distorted situations only. Please do not assume all communication is flawed. 🙂

Photo by Nationaal Archief


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