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Communication Skills Part 1: You don’t hear what I say . . . or vice versa



Just as there are different personality types, there are naturally different ways to communicate. An extroverted person talks a lot, preferably about him/herself, easily establishes contact and generally has no problem to assimilate lots of information. An introverted person, on the other hand is more reserved, does not reveal a lot of him/herself and tends to retreat in the face of too much exterior stimuli. Over time, in the course of this blog we will deal with communications idiosyncrasies of the different types. There are two objectives: First of all it helps to recognize how someone prefers to communicate because then one is able to adjust to his/her respective style and there is a better chance for a productive exchange. Secondly it is always interesting to analyze one’s own communication strengths and weaknesses and possibly tweak them a little to be more successful in everyday life and become more confident in dealing with others.

Prior to addressing the individual communication styles of individual types, today I would like to introduce a “basic communication model” that is going to be helpful. It was developed by Friedemann Schulz von Thun. According to this model as a part of a dialogue between two people every statement contains four messages:

  • The factual information or matter layer (the pure information contained in the statement)
  • The self-revealing (that which the statement reveals about the sender of the message)
  • The relationship-layer (what I as the message sender think about you – the recipient – as a person and about our relationship with each other)
  • The appeal (what I as the sender of the message want to make you as the recipient to do)
Too complicated? Not at all! Here is an example demonstrating the point of the exercise:

A man (in the passenger seat of a car) says to his wife (at the wheel): “Look, the light up ahead is green!”
  • The actual information contained in the message is obvious: A green light becomes visible somewhere further ahead. This part of the message is (usually) pretty unambiguous.
  • The self-revealing, that which the person reveals about him/herself. For instance it could be: “I am in a hurry!” or “even as the front seat passenger I am always aware of the traffic!”
  • The relationship layer is going to continue coming up in future blog contributions because that is frequently the one leading to confrontations among those involved. Here potential interpretations could be for instance: “I am the better driver!” – “I am your husband and tell you what is important!” – “You need my help when you are driving!” – “I watch out for you and care for you!” or . . . or . . . or. Much depends on the relationship of sender and recipient with each other. The recipient is going to show a correspondingly different reaction to the message, almost everything in between from “I feel lovingly cared for” and “I feel insufferably controlled”.
  • The appeal-message contained could be interpreted as: “step on the gas!” or “drive faster!”
Schulz von Thun believes that these four layers of a message are present in almost all human communication.

As all of us have preferences and dislikes in all areas of our life, the same also applies to our styles of communication: Some people hear especially well with one of the “four ears” that all of us need for capturing the different layers. Someone who hears especially well with the “matter layer ear“ will only attempt to understand the transmitted facts. For him the “nuances” tend to remain secondary. Those who tend to listen with the “self-revealing ear” tend to primarily concentrate on their counterpart: What kind of a person is he/she, how is he/she? “Relationship layer ear” specialists are calibrated to attempt discovering information about what their counterpart thinks about them with every statement, how he/she treats them and what that says about their mutual relationship. Finally, with every statement “appeal ear” listeners ask themselves: How does it affect my thinking, feeling and behaving? What does my counterpart expect of me? What am I supposed to do?

Now you may be able to appreciate that these different preferences can lead to truly a Babylonian communication confusion that frequently leads to misunderstandings, talking past each other or worse, actual conflicts. If one person only sends on the “matter layer channel“ – and merely wants to communicate: “The soup is too salty!” and the counterpart has an extremely well developed “relationship ear” and is possibly even sensitive to criticism and therefore hears: “For my taste your cooking simply isn’t up to par!” the conflict is practically pre-programmed. And then the ”I did not mean it that way” is probably not going to save the situation . . .

As the first step for understanding your very own communication style I would like to suggest that you consciously concentrate an entire day on one of your four “ears” at a time and deliberately block out the other three. Pay close attention how that influences your reactions to that which others say to you. Is there an “ear” that makes it easier for you to listen? Or another one that requires a real effort? How does your selective listening effect your conversation on those specific days? Is the respective effect rather more pleasant or fairly unpleasant for you? And, what is the reaction you observe in your conversation partners?

To be continued – for now, have fun experimenting!

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