The four sides of communication

In a recent course at work, we took a closer look at communication.  The theoretical framework supplied by German psychologist Friedemann Schulz von Thun stuck with me, which is why I’ll translate the excerpts we received for those who may be interested as well.  The publishing rights for the German edition are with the Rowohlt publishing house, and you can buy the originals at  I don’t think an English translation exists.

Chapter I: The Anatomy of a Message

The basic model of human communication is simple.  It begins with a originator, who wishes to share something.  He codes what he wishes to share in known signals; we call this ensemble of signals his dispatch.  The receiver’s task is to decode what he perceives.  Usually the dispatch sent and the dispatch received correspond well enough to give rise to understanding.  Often, both the originator and the receiver make use of the possibility of checking the transmission: by telling the originator how he has decoded the dispatch and what effect it had on him (giving him feedback), the receiver helps the originator verify that what he intended to send corresponds more or less with the received dispatch.

Let us take a closer look at the dispatch.  I personally found it a fascinating discovery, the importance and extent of which I only gradually realized, that one and the same dispatch always contains a multitude of messages.  This is a fundamental fact of life which we as originators and receivers cannot avoid.  It is what makes the process of interpersonal communications so complex and error-prone, but also so exciting.

To bring order into the many messages contained in a dispatch, I would like to differentiate four important sides of each dispatch.  Take an everyday example: The husband (=originator) says to his wife (=receiver), who’s driving their car: “The light’s green, dear!”  Which messages are contained in this dispatch?  What did the originator (consciously or unconsciously) include in it, and what can the receiver take out of it?

1. Factual Content (or: What am I informing about?)

First, the dispatch contains factual information.  In the present example we learn something about the condition of the traffic light: the green light is lit.  Whenever we are being businesslike and factual, we emphasize this side of the dispatch (or at least we should).

Even now, in this chapter, I am transmitting a great deal of factual information to the reader.  You are being presented with the basics of communications psychology.  But this is only one part of what is currently happening between me (the originator) and you (the receivers).  Let us therefore turn to the second side of the dispatch.

2. Self-revelation (or: What am I making known about myself?)

Besides containing information on the factual topics, each dispatch contains personal information about the originator.  In the example we can deduce that the originator is English-speaking, can recognize colors correctly, and is alert.  Additionally, we may surmise that he is in a hurry, etc.  To put it more generally: Every dispatch contains a certain amount of self-revelation.  I choose that term in order to include both intentional self-presentation and unintentional self-exposure.  As we shall see, this side of the dispatch is very touchy.

Even as you are reading this, you are not only finding out facts, but also a great deal about me, Schulz von Thun, the author – about how I develop thoughts, about what I find important.  Were I to present this orally, you could perhaps deduce information about my abilities and my inner state by my demeanor.  I am quite aware that as the originator I am constantly sharing self-revelation, whether I want to or not, and this fact makes me restless and agitated.  How will I appear as an author?  Sure, I want to share factual information, but I also want to make a good impression, want to present myself as a person that has something to offer, that knows his stuff, and that is a sharp thinker and skilled writer.

Many problems of interpersonal communication are connected to this side of the dispatch.  I will show in a later chapter how the originator tries to deal with this problem, how he employs an array of techniques of self-aggrandizement and self-concealment in the effort to show his best side – not always to his own advantage.

3. Relationship (or: What is my opinion of you, and what terms are we on?)

The dispatch also reveals what the originator thinks of the receiver, and how he views their relationship.  Often this shows in the choice of words, the tone of voice, and other non-verbal cues.  The receiver is particularly attuned to this side of the dispatch, because it is here he, as a person, feels treated (or mistreated) in a certain way.  In our example the husband indicates by his comment that he doesn’t deem his wife capable of driving the car in an optimal fashion without his help.

It’s quite possible the wife might defend herself against his patronizing comment and answer harshly: “Who’s driving, you or I?”  Note that she is not rejecting the factual information in this case – she certainly agrees the light is green – but the relational message she received.

More generally, sending a dispatch always means expressing a certain kind of relationship to the receiver.  Strictly speaking this is of course a particular aspect of self-revelation, but we shall treat this aspect separately, because the psychological situation of the receiver is different.  When he hears self-revelation, his is one of disinterested diagnosis; when he receives the relational side, one of immediate direct concern.

There are of course two types of messages included in the relational side of a dispatch.  One type reveals how the originator sees the receiver, what he thinks of him.  In our example the husband reveals that he sees his wife as needy.  The other type reveals how the originator sees the relationship between himself and the receiver.  If someone asks another: “So, how’s the marriage going?” then the factual question also contains the implicit relational message: “We are on such terms that such intimate questions are quite permissible.”  Of course it is possible that the receiver does not agree with this definition of the relationship and considers the question to be out of place and intrusive.  It is not unusual to observe two conversation partners exhaust themselves in a tug-of-war about the definition of their relationship. More about that in a later chapter.

In other words, while the side of self-revelation contains “I-messages” from the originator’s point of view, the relational side contains both “you-messages” and “we-messages.”

So what’s happening on the relational side as you read this text?  By writing and publishing this contribution I have indicated that I think you are in need of information.  I am assigning the role of a pupil to you.  By reading (and continuing to read), you have signalled that you accept such a relationship for the moment.  Or you might feel patronized by my manner of developing my thoughts and think to yourself: “Okay, he might have a point (factual side of the dispatch), but his pontificating is mighty annoying!”  I’ve experienced that some receivers are sensitive to an excessively deliberate presentation of the factual content – “He must think I’m dumb if he presents the information in such a simple, painstaking way.”  As you can see, even in cases where the emphasis lies on the factual side the relational side can markedly determine the outcome.

4. Appeal (or: What do I want you to do?)

Hardly anything is said “just so.”  Almost all dispatches serve to influence the receiver.  In our example the appeal may be: “Step on it, and we may just make it before the light turns red!”

Thus the dispatch also serves to cause the receiver to do or neglect, think or feel certain things.  This attempt to exert influence can be more or less overt or concealed – in the latter case we call it manipulation.  The manipulative originator has no qualms making the other three sides of the dispatch subservient to his appeal.  In this case the factual information is one-sided, the self-revelation is geared to have a certain effect on the receiver (e.g. feelings of admiration or a desire to offer assistance), and even the relational messages are determined by the covert intent of maintaining the receiver’s good disposition (e.g. through flattery or obsequious behavior).  If the factual, relational, and self-revelatory sides are thus used to improve the effect of the appeal side, those sides are instrumentalized and no longer reflective of reality, but become a means to an end.  More about that in a later chapter.

It is important to distinguish the appeal side from the relational side, for the same appeal can be linked to completely different relational messages.  In our example the wife might approve of the appeal per se, but react sensitively to being patronized.  Or she may disagree with an appeal, but welcome her husband giving her driving tips in this manner.

Of course this book also contains a number of appeals.  They will become clearer in the chapters that follow.  An important appeal, for instance, is: “In critical situations, try to achieve ‘square clarity’ by directly addressing the ‘quiet’ sides of self-revelation, relationship, and appeal!”

[I will add more later, but since what follows requires diagrams and might take a while to get done, I’m posting this part now.  It’s the basic groundwork; the rest (of what I have) concerns the diagnosis of communication.]


3 thoughts on “The four sides of communication

  1. SursumCorda

    Fascinating. Makes my head spin a bit, though that may have more to do with having gotten too little sleep for two days in a row. (How do new mothers stay sane?)

  2. thduggie Post author

    It’s worth working through, I think. It’s helped me identify a number of problems in communications past and present. That said, perhaps it will make more sense once we get into the diagnosis part.

  3. Pingback: The Scandal of the Evangelical Taste | thduggie's blog

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