Iceberg model: communication below the surface

We communicate around the clock, whether by mobile phone, email or face-to-face. With all these channels, communication problems can arise. One reason for this is that the relationship level, which includes emotions and runs unconsciously, has a large share in communication and therefore also a large potential for conflict. But it is not only this level, but also the conscious factual level that can lead to conflict. This concept of the relationship level and the factual level is presented in the iceberg model. The iceberg model can be used in a variety of ways and this article focuses on communication.
The term was first used as a metaphor by Ernest Hemingway. He said that it was not necessary to give all the details about the main character, but, like an iceberg, only 1/8 of the iceberg, the part above the water's surface. In the German-speaking world, the term "iceberg model" was first used in 1974 by Ruch / Zimbardo in reference to Freud's structural model of the psyche of id, ego and superego. The id and parts of the ego represent the unconscious part of the personality, the rest is conscious. It should be noted, however, that Freud never used this symbolic description in this way.
An Iceberg


What is the iceberg model

The iceberg model in our context is a communication model. When you think of interpersonal communication, the iceberg serves as a kind of symbolic placeholder. Only the top 20% is conscious and visible information, containing numbers, dates, facts or clear statements. It is the part of the iceberg that is visible above the surface of the water. This part is also called the factual level. The other 80% is the invisible part of the iceberg, the relationship layer. It manifests itself in the form of emotions and experiences and is non-verbal in nature. This means that facial expressions, gestures and tone of voice play a special role and should be given special attention. So if you want to communicate successfully, i.e. without misunderstandings and conflicts, this level should always be taken into account, otherwise 80% of the message can be misunderstood. However, conflicts occur at both levels.

The factual level: the tip of the iceberg

Factual conflicts are usually relatively easy to resolve, as they are often based on misunderstandings or insufficient or incorrect information. When the project manager assigns a task to a team member, there is usually no other context. However, it is possible to attach a different meaning to the statement, e.g. that an unpleasant task is being assigned. Or it could simply mean that someone else can do the task better. When the project manager asks whether a task has already been done, this may be a normal question, out of pure interest or in order to be able to plan better. But it can also be a subtle way of saying that the person working on the task is too slow.
You can read a lot into such statements, for all sorts of reasons. One reason could be that they have had negative experiences and are therefore cautious. However, you should try not to carry this over into a new situation. It is even more important to use clear and precise wording, to listen actively to avoid misunderstandings, to ask for feedback and to be open if something has not been clearly understood. It is helpful to ask questions and seek further information to ensure clear communication and understanding.

The relationship level: beneath the surface

As the examples above show, it is very easy to move a conversation from the factual level to the relationship level. At this level, conflicts are sometimes more difficult to resolve because of the emotions involved. Even if a statement was meant at the factual level, e.g. "I want you to do this task today", it may be interpreted quite differently by someone else at the relationship level: "You're good at your job, so you can do it today", or "I have better things to do today, so you can do it". However, it is dangerous to see such interpretations in a statement because the person may not have meant it that way. You should therefore stop this line of thought or, if that is not possible, open up the conversation and ask why the statement was made.

The iceberg model in the context of companies

As mentioned earlier, different conflicts occur at different levels. But at each level there are ways to solve these problems. It is very important to stay on the factual level. Especially when it comes to feedback and criticism, it is important to distinguish between justified and unjustified criticism. The key term here is "constructive criticism", because criticism should be given only on a factual basis, without straining interpersonal relationships.
Giving and accepting criticism takes practice, because it is not always easy to find the right words or to deal with criticism appropriately. Those who are aware of this can, if necessary, withdraw from certain discussions, express their feelings and try to return to the factual level. Communication training can be used to develop these skills, especially for project managers and people in leadership positions. Each person is unique, so it is important to develop a sense of how individual team members are and how they react to expressions in order to deal with them in the best possible way.
Role conflicts can also arise within the team, for example if the distribution of roles is not clearly defined. It is therefore important to carry out team-building activities so that team members get to know each other and responsibilities are clearly defined. The success of a project depends to a large extent on team members working together. Therefore, people with different knowledge and skills should be brought together so that they can complement each other.
In addition to technical competence, interpersonal skills such as communication skills, openness, initiative and fairness are also required. However, conflicts can arise when colleagues do not understand or like each other on a personal level, which can lead to misunderstandings. In such cases, it is particularly important to stay on a factual level and to promote a well-functioning team through workshops and team activities.


Communication is the lifeblood of a project. No matter who you are talking to, there is always the possibility of conflict, be it on a factual level or on a relational level. It is also very arbitrary to talk about a 20:80 ratio. What is important is to be aware that the relationship level is the most important part of communication. In this way, you can respond precisely to your interlocutor and avoid conflicts.

Iceberg model - the IAPM logo
Author: IAPM internal
Keywords: Project management, Iceberg model, Communication

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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.