The communication square: sending and receiving messages correctly

Communication is an essential part of our daily lives. Every day we exchange messages with other people, verbally or non-verbally, consciously or unconsciously. But how is it that we sometimes talk past each other, leading to misunderstandings and conflicts?

The answer lies in the complexity of human communication, and this is where the communication square of the German communication psychologist Friedemann Schulz von Thun comes in, a model that can also help us in project work to better understand and optimise our communication. The communication square (also known as the "four ears model") is a model he developed in 1981 to illustrate communication. It shows the different levels and aspects of communication and how messages can work at different levels. By understanding and applying the communication square, project managers can become more aware of their communication and reduce misunderstandings.
Two paper figures, each with a paper speech bubble, face each other.


The four sides of the communication square

The communication square provides a structure for analysing communication situations. It says that when I say something, I am effective in four ways. Each of my utterances contains four messages at the same time, whether I want it to or not:
  • Message 1: Factual level (what I am informing about),
  • Message 2: Self-revealing level (what I am revealing about myself),
  • Message 3: Relationship level (what I think of you and how I relate to you), and
  • Message 4: Appeal level (what I want to achieve with you).
The expressed message comes from the sender's "four beaks" and meets the receiver's "four ears", which are usually responsible for the quality of communication.
The communication square
Factual Level 

The factual level includes the pure content of the message, which is about conveying information, presenting facts and explaining issues. The factual level focuses on the core of the message without including emotional or interpersonal aspects.
The factual level can be assessed on the basis of three criteria:
  • truth or untruth - is the information true or not?
  • relevance or irrelevance - is the information important or not?
  • sufficiency or insufficiency - is the information adequately presented?
For the sender, the challenge at the factual level is to formulate the facts in a clear and understandable way. The receiver can respond according to the three criteria at the factual level.
Self-revealing level

"What James says about Claire says more about James than about Claire"

This shows that a person's self-revealing says a lot about their personality. Every utterance of a sender contains, consciously or unconsciously, a part of their personality, feelings, values and needs. Self-revelation can be either explicit, where something is said directly, or implicit, where it is not immediately understandable and must be inferred logically.
While the sender is implicitly or explicitly, consciously or unconsciously revealing information about himself with the self-revealing beak, the receiver is receiving it with the self-revealing ear. In doing so, they ask themselves questions like: What kind of person is this? What is their mood? What is on their mind?
Relationship level

On the relational level, the sender shows their attitude and opinion towards the receiver. A slight frown, a bright smile or a wink of the eye indicate whether the receiver is confused or in agreement. Information about the relationship is thus conveyed through the type of expression, tone of voice, facial expression and gestures. The sender communicates this information implicitly or explicitly. The receiver perceives the information received through the relationship ear as rejection or appreciation, disregard or recognition, humiliation or respect.
Appeal level

The sender usually wants to create an effect when communicating something. This influence of the sender on the receiver takes place at the appeal level. The sender expresses wishes or requests, makes an appeal or gives instructions, advice or clear recommendations for action, e.g: "Please write the test report". The appeal can also be hidden between the lines, e.g: "I need your test report to prepare the audit". The appeal can be overt or covert and, in this particular case, is intended to get the recipient to write the test report. The receiver with the appeal ear wonders what to do, think or feel.

Interaction of the sides and misunderstandings

When speaking, the sender communicates something on four sides and the receiver can take it in on four sides. If the levels fit together, everything is fine. But if the levels do not match, different interpretations and misunderstandings arise. 
The receiver of the message must first perceive the four levels and then interpret them. Since the sender and receiver may give different weight to each side of the message, the message may be misinterpreted and wrong conclusions may be drawn. Conversely, conflicts can arise if the sender directs the message to one ear and the receiver is deaf in that ear, i.e., cannot hear the message on that level. If people are aware of the four sides of a message and communicate on the same level, conflicts can be avoided.

An example of the four levels

Where people communicate, they can misunderstand each other, consciously or unconsciously, so the communication square can also be applied to project work. Communication can always be disturbed at different levels, with negative consequences for the project.
Example from the world of project management

Generally speaking, service-oriented, diplomatic behaviour towards the client is one of the core competencies of a project manager. If the project manager receives a phone call from the client with the following statement "I've been waiting for the test results for ten days now!", this could be classified as follows.
What the client (sender) might mean

Factual level: "The test results have not arrived yet".
Self-revealing level: "I'm behind schedule on another project".
Relationship level: "I am disappointed because I have always found you to be a reliable project manager."
Appeal level: "Could you speed up the project and give me the final deadline?"
What the project manager (recipient) might have received

Factual level: "There is a problem with the test report".
Self-revealing level: "I'm unhappy about the delay in the deadline."
Relationship level: "This is unreliable work!"
Appeal level: "I expect damage control."
Anything could be read into the above sentence - if a project manager listens with the relationship ear, they may feel unnecessarily attacked, whereas the client wants to communicate primarily on the self-revealing level. If the project manager recognizes this, he could defuse the developing conflict by offering to deliver the test report quickly.

What can be done now? Let's look at the four sides of the communication square.
On the factual level: Asking if there is any ambiguity or if something was not understood.
On the self-revealing level: Strengthening mutual trust by expressing sympathy and identifying common ground. Casually, this would strengthen the relationship.
On the relationship level: Before a confrontation occurs, it is always a good idea to ask if the message was meant the way it was understood.
On the appeal level: Ask the sender of the message directly what exactly they want.


Time and time again, we find that although clear and unambiguous communication would be ideal, it is unfortunately not the rule. There are many reasons for this, including the complexity of the message and the accuracy of the wording, but also the mental capacity of the recipient and their current state of mind. There is also non-verbal communication which, if it differs from the spoken word, can distort the message. Therefore, the project manager naturally pays attention to
  • precise expression and clear language
  • formulations free of sarcasm and irony
  • reassurence that the message has been correctly understood
  • asking questions in case of ambiguity
  • clear formulation of requests and wishes.
A project manager is expected to be communicative, i.e. to be able to present and argue, to convince and persuade - in short, to be a good transmitter. 
However, the communication square, with its representation of sender and receiver, tells us something very important. Being able to speak, i.e. to send, is only one side of the coin; the other side is less intensive in terms of preparation: listening, i.e. receiving. The project manager with strong communication skills must be a good sender and receiver!
There are many project managers who were brought up to talk and never learned to listen. But the ability to listen is an important key to success in the project and with the project team. Those who listen learn more, prioritise and decide better, and achieve better results. Listening well makes the other person feel respected and valued. And if you listen more, you have less time to talk nonsense. A project manager who really has something to say has learned to listen first. In order to avoid misinterpretations, misunderstandings and conflicts in the project team in the future, it is advisable for the project manager to listen with at least two ears, but better with four, and then to become aware of his four "beaks".

Communication square - The Author
Author: Dr. Roland Ottmann
Keywords: Project management, Communication square

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For better readability, we usually only use the generic masculine form in our texts. Nevertheless, the expressions refer to members of all genders.