The Art of Misunderstanding – The 4 Sides Model of Communication

Even if communication partners speak the same language it is not always possible to avoid misunderstanding. Verbal messages are not as simple and plain as they sometimes seem to be. A classical model by the German psychologist and communication expert Friedemann Schulz von Thun shows that every verbal expression has four “sides” that have to be respected and taken into consideration. Neglecting some of these sides increases the risk that sender and receiver of the message misunderstand each other. This is particularly true when sender and receiver come from different cultural backgrounds, for example  when volunteers work with refugees and asylum seekers. But even people from the same culture, region and linguistic background can benefit from learning, knowing and using the model for communication processes, either professionally or privately.

The Model

The 4 Sides Model

The model says that every message has four facets, though not the same emphasis might be put on each. A message (communication) can therefore be sent as well as received as one of the four sides of information.

The model has two personas and a couple of elements:

1. The Sender
The person delivering a message, i.e. saying/writing something
2. The Receiver
The person receiving a message, i.e. listening/reading
3. The Message
What is being said – the actual spoken or written words (if there was a recording everyone would hear the same words)

The four sides of the message:

The four sides are types of “hidden” or “implicit” information involved in the message. They comprise the sender’s intention and the receiver’s perception.

1. Factual information
Objective or matter of fact information, such as facts and data
2. Appeal
Desire, advice, instructions, commands that the sender is intending
3. Relationship
Information on the relationship between sender and receiver; how they get along; what they think of each other
4. Self-revelation
Implicit information (conscious or intended) about the sender; his motives, values, emotions, likes/dislikes, etc.

Beaks and Ears

Metaphorically we can speak of four beaks through which the sender speaks.

As the receiver you listen through one of four ears.

An example

A volunteer helper, female, 60 years old (sender), talks to an asylum seeker, male, 23 years old (receiver).

She asks: “Did you go to the employment agency?”

Here the four sides of the sender’s message:

  • Factual information: I would like to know if you were at the employment agency.
  • Self-revelation: I would like to be informed about your activities.
  • Relationship: I care for your integration/ I am interested in your activities/ I want to control you.
  • Appeal: You should go to the employment agency!

And the four sides of the message the receiver hears:

  • Factual information: She wants to know if I went to the employment agency.
  • Self-revelation: She wants to be informed/ she is impatient.
  • Relationship: She is interested in my integration/ she cares for me/ she gives orders to me/ she thinks that I am lazy.
  • Appeal: Go to the employment agency!

Maybe the sender wants to express interest and sympathy whereas the receiver hears impatience, control and orders.

His reply then can be: “This is not your business!”

The example shows that sender and receiver championed the art of misunderstanding each other. It also shows that every conversation carries a huge potential of misunderstanding, particularly in intercultural contexts and situations.

Each layer of the model can be misunderstood individually. The sender might want to deliver an appeal, but the receiver will understand the message depending on the ear he is listening with. He/she might rightly hear the appeal, but it is also possible that he just hears the message as a facual information. This can lead to irritation, frustration and potential conflict, for example when the appeal is not being fulfilled.

The Two Truths

Thus, in every conversation there are two truths
  • The sender has an intention that is usually hidden/implicit in the message. This intention is the sender’s truth.
  • The receiver analyses the information heard by matching it against his/her beliefs, values, experiences and cultural background. His/her perception of what he hears is the receiver’s truth.
Unfortunately, in many cases the sender’s truth and the receiver’s truth do not correspond to each other.

All of these processes happen very fast and subconsciously. As already mentioned, the cultural background, the experiences, values and expectations of both the sender and the receiver influence what they intend to express and what they understand.

How to Improve Understanding?

© Institut für Lern-Innovation

When working with refugees and asylum seekers of course you are interested in well-functioning communication. The first step towards this is awareness about what is happening. You know now about the dynamics of communication and the risk of misunderstanding, and you can tell the differences of the four sides of a message.

The next step is to improve the effectiveness of your communication processes. How can you easily learn if your communication works well and your message has come across as you intended?

Useful Questions

In any conversation it is helpful to be clear about your own intentions and the potential of the four sides of the message.

The following questions may help to avoid misunderstanding:

  • What is my intention?
  • Which information do I want to send?
  • Which ear am I listening on?
  • What information might my partner be sending?
  • How else could I understand this message?


To reassure if your communication works properly it is useful to check back:

  • Make the intention of your message explicit (e.g. “I’d like you to go to the employment agency”)
  • Ask what your partner heard and what he/she makes of it.
  • Ask if you understood correctly:
    “So do you mean…?”
    “So do you want me to…?”
    “I want to make sure that I understood what you said?”