Communication – a coin with four sides

„It is not possible to not communicate“. Wise words by Austrian-US-American psychotherapist and communications researcher Paul Watzlawick. If communication is indeed so ubiquitous it seems astonishing how hard it is to actually understand each other the way each of us wants to be understood. Communicating is hard. The more I learn about it, the more I realize how difficult it actually is. I’d like to talk a little about the psychological aspects of communication and how they could hinder or help us in understanding and thereby coming closer to each other.

Following various discourses online and offline, especially about emotionally charged issues like refugees, racism, bodily autonomy / abortion / contraception, issues of gender and sexual identity, freedom of expression etc., I increasingly got the impression that people fail miserably at actually talking to each other in any meaningful way. Some have strong opinions and are not afraid to voice them. I’d say that’s a good thing, not having to be afraid to voice your opinion. But some seem to consider the mere fact that someone else has a different opinion an affront. That’s when I thought people were talking at each other, not with each other. Some don’t want rational debates about facts, some don’t want to exchange „dry arguments“, they want to be seen in their pain and respected in their emotions. So far so understandable. Some want to see their own opinions and worldviews confirmed in order to feel secure in an increasingly complex, ambiguous and uncertain world. Some want to talk about how they feel about an issue, instead about what they think about it. Alright. But:

Perhaps this is going to sound trivial, but those are two different things. If we fail to realize that, we’re likely to talk past each other. When one party tries to communicate on the level of facts and the other on the level of how he or she feels about something, misunderstandings are almost certain. One psychological model to explain why this is so is the Sender-Receiver model by German psychologist and communications researcher Friedemann Schulz von Thun. He posits that every message we send – note that considering Watzlawick’s premise this means a message is everything we ever do or don’t do – has actually four sides to it. Any sort of utterance, be it verbal or non-verbal contains information on the following levels:

  1. The matter level: what dates and hard facts does the speaker tell you? What is the verbatim content of the message?
  2. The level of self-disclosure:  what is the speaker telling you about herself, his/her thoughts and feelings, motives, values?
  3. The level of relationships: what does the speaker think of the receiver and in what sort of relation does he/she see herself towards the receiver?
  4. The level of appeal (as in: request): what does the speaker want the receiver to do, what does he/ want to achieve?

However, in human communication, not only does the message sent have four different aspects to it. The receiver also has four analogous channels with which he/she receives the message. The sender has four „beaks“, the receiver has four „ears“. Often, what the sender wishes to convey through his/her four beaks does not correspond with how the receiver interprets the signals with his/her four ears. That’s how misunderstandings are created. Let’s illustrate this with an example. The late German humorist Vicco von Bülow, aka Loriot was a mastermind of portraying the intricacies of human communication with subtlety and sophistication. One of his cartoons is called „The breakfast egg“. The video has English subtitles and is only 2min long, so please go ahead and watch it.

Well, that escalated quickly, huh? So what the hell happened? The two were sending and receiving messages on two different levels and therefore talked past each other. I’d propose he was sending on the factual level: „The egg is hard.“ That’s about as factual as a statement can get. And what did she receive? Apparently something else than just a neutral statement. Maybe she received what he said on the level of relationships. If that were the case, she might have understood him as saying: „You’re an awful cook!“ Or maybe she received on the level of appeals. In that case, the message she heard might’ve been something along the lines of: “Cook me another egg!“ If we grant for a moment that one of those two possibilities is what the wife understood, we can understand why she reacts in a rather clipped way. He then continues to send on the factual level and completely fails to realize she is sending on a different one. Which in turn apparently frustrates his wife immensely, who seems to be unable to explicitly state her feelings. In the end, they don’t talk about the actual egg at all anymore. The conversation has morphed into one about mutual respect and appreciation of the wife’s domestic efforts.

Although this is a humoristic example, I believe something similar often happens in more serious discourse as well, for instance when talking about social justice issues. And as long as we don’t notice when we’re sending and receiving on different channels, we’ll keep misunderstanding each other. It’s the responsibility of sender as well as receiver to make sure they’re communicating on the same level. I sometimes get the impression that there are people who refuse to take responsibility for the success of a conversation. They want to voice their opinion and feelings and demand to be understood right away, without having to explain themselves or refusing to check if their own interpretations of another’s message is correct. This kind of behaviour makes any conversation, makes actually getting together next to impossible. And especially in the context of the issues mentioned above, I believe it’s all about getting together. We can’t achieve positive change in those areas as long as we’re not willing to have actual conversations about them. An actual conversation entails a willingness to listen and to make an effort to understand the other party. How are you going to talk with each other when you slap your hands over your ears because you, for whatever reasons, don’t want to listen to what the other one has to say? I believe that in some cases, a subjective feeling of offense suffocates the readiness to question whether or not you even understood the other party correctly. I realize there are people who are not interested in conversation and only want to stir up trouble. But not everyone who disagrees with me is just closed-minded or a troll.

As a sender, I am responsible for what I say – not for what the receiver understands. As a receiver, I am responsible to check if my antennae are aligned correctly. When I refuse this responsibility as a receiver, I am just as responsible for a conversation going wrong.

I’ll assume that it’s a basic human need to understand and be understood. So what can we do to make understanding and being understood as likely as possible?

I’d say we could start by giving the other one the benefit of the doubt that he/she wants to have an actual conversation about something with me and that he/she wants to be understood as much as anyone else. In a heated discussion with hardened fronts, we could start with trying to understand the other one first, before making assumptions about what he/she truly meant that are actually false. We could start by asking the other one if we understood him/her correctly: „I understand what you’re saying like this… Is that what you meant? Have I understood you correctly?“ Because as long as this basic premise is not met, that we have understood the other the way he or she wanted to be understood, it would be pointless to advance the conversation. We need to agree on which level we want to communicate on and then either try to stay there or explicitly state when we intend to switch levels. So: Stick with the egg, then you won’t unwittingly accuse your significant other of being a chicken.

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