The Four-Sides Model of Communication.
It is a model for communication developed by Friedman Schulk von Thun, a renowned communication theorist, in 1981. The Four-Sides Model of Communication emphasises that every message has four distinct dimensions, each contributing to the overall meaning and impact of the communication.
I’m sharing it with you because if you intend to or already have meaningful relationships, you will need to know it.
The Four-Sides Model of Communication
A typical communication model includes a sender, a receiver and a message (verbal and non-verbal). The message is encoded by the sender and decoded by the receiver.
- Encoding refers to the sender transforming a thought into a communicable message.
- Decoding is when the receiver interprets what they receive and perceives the message (verbal and non-verbal).
Each dimension is a secret ingredient or implicit element of the overall message.
- From the sender, this is their intention
- from the receiver, this is their perception.
These dimensions include:
"The Sugar Jar is Empty"
Let’s set the scene.
Imagine I’m living with my spouse. I’m making my tea. I would like 2 teaspoons of sugar. So, I open the cupboard and the sugar jar, only to find it’s empty. I turn around and say, “The Sugar Jar is Empty” to my partner.
What am I really saying?
Facts: There’s no sugar left
Self-revelation: I need sugar in my tea
Relationship: You’re supposed to stock up on the cupboard
Appeal: Go and fill the sugar jar
Me saying ‘the sugar jar is empty’ is less about being factually correct but more of a prompt for her to go and fill the jar.
But she’ll hear what I said and may interpret it as something completely different:
Facts: there’s no sugar left
Self-revelation: I’m annoyed at her
Relationship: I don’t think she’s reliable.
Appeal: Go and fill the sugar jar
The same is 5 words can potentially have 5 or even 10 different interpretations.
Here's the Problem...
As summarised by Victoria Schiffer in her post on the topic, there are two mutually exclusive events happening at the same time.
- The sender has an intention usually hidden/implicit in the message. The intention is the sender’s truth.
- The receiver analyses the information heard by matching it against their beliefs, values, and experiences. Their perception of what they heard becomes the receiver’s truth.
The problem is, to the sender, their intentions are what’s correct and what’s true. But then the receiver says the same about their perception.
The sender says: “These are my intentions, I’m the one communicating, so I’m correct”. But the receiver says, “Well, I’m only working with what they gave me/what they said. So if this is how it comes across, they must have intended for it to come across like this! So my perception is correct!”
And the problem is that exactly.
90% of the time, the intention and perception aren’t true simultaneously.
For example, there is never the same emphasis on all four facets. Depending on your relationship with the other person and your own ‘default side’, you will lean more heavily into one facet than the other – which again screws everything. So, the emphasis can be meant and understood differently.
We tend to have too much faith that our intention or perception will carry the message alone. That is almost certainly never the case. We often discount and discredit our beliefs, values, experiences and context that shape how we encode and decode.
And unless the other party knows those different elements of us, we’re screwed.
So, case in point, you can never rely on your intention or perception solely.
How do we fix this problem?
It takes two to tango.
Before we encode and decode, we have to evaluate ourselves first. We must prepare and set ourselves up personally and as a team for the best chances of healthy and effective communication.
As the communicator, it’s your responsibility to make sure your audience understands your message. Your intentions alone are not enough to carry the message alone. Before you attempt to communicate anything, ask yourself these questions first:
- What is my intention? Do you want the other person to understand you or to perform an action? Confirm that what you actually want is what you think you want. The clearer you are with yourself, the clearer you’ll be with them.
- What is the best way to communicate this? You know what you want to say, but they don’t. You’re not saying it for you to understand but for them. So, you must adapt your approach to something they’re more likely to understand. You’re speaking for them – not for you.
Once you’ve done that, you’re in a better position with more clarity and forethought to communicate. It won’t be perfect all the time. But you can help the receiver by doing the following:
- Make your intentions explicit and clear. If you want them to do something, then say that. Don’t encrypt anything behind secret or hidden meaning.
- Ask what your partner heard and how they understood the conversation. Don’t just speak, but ask. Make it a conversation and not a speech. That’s how you get feedback on whether your message was received.
The way we decode a message is never the objective reality. We all have our own filters and explanations which paint the picture of the world the way we see it. We have to be aware of and understand that. Otherwise, everyone gets screwed – yourself, the other person and the relationship.
Ask yourself these questions before, during and after the conversation:
- Which ear am I listening on? Are you biased to one ear and tend to interpret the message by that default dimension? No message is decoded without bias.
- What information might my partner be sending? Take yourself out of the picture. Not how you feel? Or what do you think he means. Try to put yourself in their shoes and decode his intentions instead of your understanding.
- How else could I understand this message? There are 10 ways to interpret something. Is there an equally possible but more positive perspective you can adopt? Firstly, they try to make a conclusion with only half the picture. Secondly, they’re biased and have a mind of their own.
- Make sure you understood correctly: Questions and phrases like, “Do you mean…?”, “Just to be clear…” or “To make sure we’re on the same page, …” go a very long way.
So next time you’re in a conversation, whether you’re the sender or receiver, remember there are four elements to what you say, not just the words you use. Be aware that intentions and perceptions depend on you both to meet in the middle.