Four-sides model & the relationship layer

I’ve just spend a lovely weekend at FrOSCon, the “Free and Open Source Software Conference”, in Bonn. One of the talks I attended was “Projektstatus: Nachrichten vom anderen Stern” (“Project status: Messages from a different star”) about communication. I wish I could have listened to this, when I started out as a Scrum master. It would have been so helpful! The speaker Judith Andresen revisited the Four-sides model and that communication is all about relationships:

Four-sides model of communication

The Four-sides model (“Hamburger Modell”) by Friedemann Schulz von Thun is in every German textbook on communication. It states that every message has 4 layers:

  • Factual information
    Facts and data
  • Appeal
    What the sender (speaker) wants to happen
  • Self revelation
    What the sender reveals about themselves – motives, values, emotions
  • Relationship
    How sender and receiver (listener) get along; what the sender thinks of the receiver

The lower three are open to interpretation. There can be a huge gap between the words someone says and what is perceived by someone else. It depends entirely on who is speaking and who is listening. An example:

  • Factual information: “Your team is a bottleneck”
  • Appeal could be:
    • “Work faster”
    • “Work differently”
    • “Hire someone”
  • Self revelation could be:
    • “I’m worried, we might not be able to deploy”
    • “I’m relieved it’s not my team”
  • Relationship could be:
    • “Your work is inadequate”
    • “You’re letting everyone down”

Of these 4 layers people tend to perceive the relationship layer. This explains gazillions of “I’ve never said that!” arguments all over the world: “Hearing” the relationship layer and confounding our interpretation of what was said, with the actual words.

Self Defense

Here’s what you can do if you don’t want to get blindsided by interpretations:

  • If you’re speaking: Anticipate possible misinterpretations and explicitly say what you do and don’t mean.
    Example: “Your team is a bottleneck. I’m not saying that, because I think you’re doing a bad job. I’m saying this, because I think there’s too much work coming in and I’d like to talk about what we can do to prevent that.”
    Coming to think about it, in tricky situations I try to speak out loud about all 4 layers: 1) I declare my intent, 2) why I’m speaking up and 3) what I appreciate in the other person on top of 4) stating my observations. Pretty meta…
  • If you’re listening: Before being hurt and getting all defensive, ask how something was meant.
    Example: “When you say that my team is a bottleneck, what do you mean? That we’re not fast enough? That we’re lazy? Do you really think that? What do you want us to do?”

Such simple measures can prevent a lot of hurt feelings, bruised egos and ultimately shipwrecked projects.