The Art of Misunderstanding & The 4 Sides Model of Communication
A long time ago — at high school to be precise, I learned about the 4 Sides Model of Communication by Friedemann Schulz von Thun, a German psychologist and expert on both interpersonal and intrapersonal communication.
Last week I was reminded of the model in a coaching conversation I had at SEEK about potential misunderstanding, and shared the model with my coachee. I am going to be gutsy in putting up the hypothesis that we all have moments of misunderstanding in our workdays. And I’ll keep being gutsy in saying that learning, knowing and using the model will be valuable for your future communications — business and private.
This post about the Art of Misunderstanding talks about beaks, ears, messages, intentions, beliefs and values, perceptions and for the data fans out there, how analysis leads to misunderstanding.
The model says that every message has four facets, though not the same emphasis might be put on each.
A message (communication) can therefore be sent as well as received as one of the four sides of information.
The model has two personas and a couple of elements:
Beaks & Ears
Metaphorically, when you’re the sender your main intent is spoken through one of 4 beaks. As the receiver you’re listening through one of four ears. 
Sender with 4 beaks | message’s 4 facets | Receiver with 4 ears
 Two people are eating a home-cooked meal together. The one who didn’t cook says:
Sender: “There is something green in the soup.”
Factual Information: There is something green.
Appeal layer: Tell me what it is!
Relationship layer: You should know what it is.
Self-revealing layer: I don’t like greens in my soup.
Factual Information: There is something green.
Appeal layer: I should only cook what you know in the future!
Relationship layer: You think my cooking is questionable.
Self-revealing layer: You do not know what the green item is, and that makes you feel uncomfortable.
Because of the perceived intention of the message, the receiver might answer:
Receiver: “If you don’t like the taste, you can cook it yourself!”
This soup example shows how amazingly the sender and receiver have championed the art of misunderstanding! It also shows the HUGE potential in misunderstanding each other.
Each layer of the model can be misunderstood individually. The sender might want to deliver an appeal. The receiver will understand the message depending on the ear he listens with. He might rightly hear the appeal, but he might also just hear it as factual information. This leads to misunderstanding, frustration and potential conflict (e.g. the appeal isn’t being fulfilled).
The Two Truths
- The sender has an intention, that is usually hidden/implicit in the message. The intention is the sender’s truth.
- The receiver analyses the information heard, by matching it against his beliefs, values as well as his experiences. His perception of what he heard becomes the receiver’s truth.
Sender: Intention => truth
Receiver: Perception => truth
Sender’s truth != Receiver’s truth
(the receiver’s truth might not be the sender’s truth)
This all happens very fast and subconsciously. Some people have a default channel on which they send and receive messages due to preference, experience or a strong belief system. Role and default perceptions and expectations on the role can have a big impact on the effectiveness of communication, too.
Where does this apply?
This concept applies to the spoken word, as well as to the written word. I’d even say it goes beyond words, right to non-verbal communication too.
“One cannot not communicate”
(Paul Watzlawick, psychologist, communications theorist, and philosopher)
As per the above quote even non-verbal communication is communication, too. So even by NOT saying a word we’re communicating. We’re communicating through our eyes, body language and NOT speaking. We are senders of information in every interaction.
Hence the importance of this model and understanding the dynamics of our personal perceptions and beliefs.
Check-in & Check-back
In business we want to learn fast whether we’re on the right track or not. We don’t want to waste our time and energy on misunderstandings. So how do we learn fast?
The first step is awareness about what’s happening. Tick! You now know about the dynamics of communication and misunderstanding and can tell the difference of the four sides of a message.
So how do you become a better communicator with your teams, your direct reports, your leaders, your peers, your partner? How do you learn fast whether your communication is effective and your message has come across as you intended?
Use the Check-in & Check-back approach. It leads to more effective communication, while being respectful towards you and your communication partner.
- What is my intention?
- Which information DO I want to send?
- Which ear am I listening on?
- What information might my partner be sending?
- How else could I understand this message?
- Make intention of message explicit!
(e.g. “I’d like you to do something for me…”)
- Ask what your partner heard and what they make of the conversation.
(e.g. after the brief chat, or within a meeting check what people will do)
Receiver — Ask if you understood correctly:
- “So do you mean…?”
- “So do you want me to…?”
- “I want to make sure we’re on the same page, …”
Check-in and Check-Back reminds me of the fast feedback loops and validated learning in Agile, as well as PDCA (plan-do-check-act), OODA loop (observe-orient-decide-act) and the Lean Startup’s Build-Measure-Learn approaches used at SEEK.
The Challenge of our Roles & Leadership
In addition, our role and standing in any group can also contribute to how we deliver our messages and how people perceive our messages. Let’s say a leader (natural leader, or line manager) usually communicates to his team or direct reports as Appeals. This conditions his team members to listen through their Appeal ear more often. Next time he delivers a message that is simply informative, people are more likely to listen through their Appeal ear. His team will be very alert in listening for the hidden appeal in any of the leader’s statements, facial expressions and body language.
Put yourself in the leader’s shoes: What is the impact on your relationship with you as their leader and your team’s overall culture and ways of working?
Now stay in the leader’s shoes and flip your approach: What happens if you make your intent known upfront, if you check-in with yourself and check-back with your team? What does this do to your relationship with your team, and the team’s culture and ways of working?
This exercise can be repeated for all four facets of a message: factual information, appeal, self-revelation and relationship. What happens if all your messages were always received on just one of the other facets?
I highly recommend that everyone, especially leaders, become role models in championing this model, as well as checking-in and checking-back!
Practice, practice, practice…
Like everything new, this, too requires practice!
Experiment with applying the model. Experiment with checking-in and checking-back in meetings and also in chats with your peers, your direct reports and your managers.
What is the impact of your experiments, both for yourself and your communication partner?
Share the model, make the model explicit for more awareness, discuss it with your peers, leaders and within your teams, and see the benefits it brings to everyone.
What do you think of the model? What are your experiences with using it? Please comment below to share your thoughts.