The Way You’re Communicating Might Be Messing Up Your Relationships

Don’t just talk to each other. Talk about how you talk to each other.

Photo: Tetra Images/Getty Images

Imagine this interaction between a couple, Tim and Maya.

Tim says: “Hey, the window’s open.”

“Get up and shut it yourself,” Maya replies.

Whoa. Hold up. What happened here?

Maybe Tim did want Maya to close the window, and this was his way of telling her that. Or maybe he was simply observing that the window was open, but Maya responded so quickly to the first possibility that she didn’t have time to consider the second. Now they’re both upset. For days they’ve been snapping at each other, their irritation set off by one instance of potentially crossed wires.

How would things have been different if Tim and Maya had taken the time to talk about how they communicate? This concept is called meta-communication, which the late anthropologist Gregory Bateson defined as “communication about communication.” Every message we send to others, including the people we love, can mean different and often contradictory things depending on how it’s interpreted. Understanding this and then working on communicating more clearly can prevent misunderstandings and improve your relationships.

Some psychologists have spent years building models that help us communicate better. One of them, the German professor Friedemann Schulz von Thun, developed the four-ears model, a lens through which we can view any exchange between two people. According to the model, every message has four layers:

The four-ears model of communication, according to Friedemann Schulz von Thun. Image: Wikimedia Commons
  1. The fact layer: This includes data, hard facts, and universally verifiable information, such as “grass is green” or, in Tim’s case, “the window is open.”
  2. The self-revelation layer: Everything you say reveals something about yourself, whether you intend it to or not. For instance, when Tim said, “The window is open,” it could be implied that he was cold.
  3. The relationship layer: Every statement also reveals something about what you believe about your relationship with the other person. If Tim says “the window is open” to signal he’s cold, it also means he believes his girlfriend cares about his well-being.
  4. The appeal layer: Finally, each message comes with an appeal, an ask. The ask may not always be a favor, such as closing the window. It may also be an intangible desire: In this layer, Tim could be saying, “please validate my concern” or “please show me empathy.”

The way we interpret these layers stems from our upbringing, past experiences, present context, and how we choose to navigate the world. When the sender interprets part of a message differently than the receiver had intended, tensions arise. For example, in his statement “the window is open,” Tim may have been indicating, “I trust that our relationship is one of mutual care, so you’ll close the window.” However, Maya may have interpreted the statement as “I’m lazy, entitled, and expect you to do this job for me.”

So how could Tim and Maya have handled their interaction differently? First, they could have made an effort to communicate with clarity. Imagine if Tim had said, “Hey, it’s getting a little cold in here. Would you mind closing the window while you’re up?” Maya would have had less room to come up with a different interpretation of the statement.

Second, after the conflict took place, they could have considered and talked through the layers of their respective messages and come to an understanding.

Finally, and this is the most important part, Tim and Maya should have been talking regularly about how they talk to each other. Taking the time to answer questions such as: What do we believe about our relationship? What do we expect of each other? How do certain statements make us feel? Clear communication is the key to lasting relationships. But it’s a skill we can’t master on our own.

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