The four sides of communication

If you want to tell someone something you verbalize you thoughts and the other person hears your words and will understand your message exactly in the way you meant it. Communication is so easy, or isn’t it?

Unfortunately it isn’t that easy. To speak the same language isn’t a guarantor for a consistent communication. If you want to tell someone something you can say it in many different ways. In addition, everything you say may be interpreted in different ways.

Within this article I want to take a look at the communication theory of Schulz von Thun. Of course, I want to give a quick introduction only. If you want to deepen the topic I can recommend the according books of Schulz von Thun.

The four-sides model

Schulz von Thun summarizes his communication theory in a nice and simple model: the four sides of communication. The key message of this model states, every message has for facets. These four facets are available on the sender side as well as on the receiver side. If you send a message to someone you will always use one of these for channels. And the receiver will always listen on a channel. If they don’t match together there is a high possibility for misunderstandings.

The four facets or channels of a message are: fact, self-revealing, relationship, and appeal. As you send a message you will implicit or explicit favor one of these channels. Of course, you may also use several facets in your message, but there is always one channel which is the dominating one. The same is on the receiver side. The receiver also has one main input channel and maybe doesn’t use the other ones.

The sender

Let’s have a look at the four facets of a communication on the sender side.

On the matter layer the sender provides facts, information and statements. He wants to send information in a clear and easy to understand way. The sender should try to use only a few words and a simple and clear diction.

As the sender tells his message he will always also tell something about himself. On this self-revealing layer he will show his intentions and feelings. At the same time, the formulation, tone and body language will also show something about the relationship of the sender and the receiver. On this relationship layer the sender will show what he thinks about the other and how they are related.

Last but not least, the communication may be done to call for an action. So, on the appeal layer the sender will implicit or explicit make the receiver do something or leave something undone.

The receiver

As the sender will communicate his message via the four shown layers, the receiver will also hear with four different ears.

On the matter layer the receiver will hear and check the information. He will check it for completeness, relevance and reliability and try’s to interpret and understand the message. The receiver may also hear with the self-revealing ear and hears information about the sender. So he may try to understand what type of person the sender is, what he wants or what’s wrong with him.

It is also possible that the receiver hears at the relationship layer. So he will think about the way the communication is done. Is he talking with respect to the receiver, or maybe he is depressed or does he speak in a condescending way?

As a result of the received message, the receiver may ask himself: “What should I do, think or feel now?” In this case he hears with the appeal ear


So let us look at a little example.

You are in vacation and walk through a city. On your way back to the train station you are not sure about the right way. So you ask a passerby “Is this the right way to the train station?”

Depending on the channel u use, the message may have different meanings:

  • Matter layer: “I don’t know the way to the train station.”
  • Self-revealing layer: “Please help me to find the right way.”
  • Relationship layer: “I think you are a trustful person which can help me.”
  • Appeal: “Please tell me the right way to the train station.”


And depending on the receivers channel it may also have different meanings:

  • Matter layer: He doesn’t know the way to the train station.
  • Self-revealing layer: He is a helpless tourist who needs help.
  • Relationship layer: He asks me so he thinks I am a local.
  • Appeal: He wants me to tell him the right way.

Communication traps

Within the shown example you may see that there are many different ways to send and receive even a simple message. As mentioned at the beginning of the article, the sender will communicate his message by one of the four channels. And the receiver will hear on one channel. If they don’t match together there is a high possibility for misunderstandings. And even if they match there may be misunderstanding. Unfortunately, to make it even more complicated, the channels will change during a conversation. So every time a message is sent and received different channels may be involved.

But what can you do to bypass these traps? You have to keep the following principle in mind: It’s not crucial what you meant! Much more important is what the other person has understood!

As a result, communication is not just about sending a message, it is about understanding. Therefore it is necessary to check whether the receiver has well understood the message as it was meant. There existing many suitable feedback methods for this purpose. For example the sender may clarify and explain his expectations explicitly. If he wants that the receiver does something according to his message he may clearly communicate his expectations or ask the receiver for his feedback and the next steps he do as result of this conversation.

As a receiver you can do the following: Try to hear with all ears. Of course in the first moment you will receive the message on the actual preferred channel. But in the second step you may think about the message by looking at all channels. And of course you should give feedback. Tell the sender how you have understand the message and what you will do according to it.


Communication is not a simple and clear exchange of messages. Communication is about understanding. Unfortunately a message can be meant and understand in different ways, shown by the four channels. If you want to improve you communication skills you should always be aware of this communication principle and use feedback techniques to see whether the message was understand in the right way.

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