The Reason We Bother To Communicate

So why do people want to communicate with one another? Is it just making noise because we are supposed to be social animals? Could be. But that raises another question: Why are we social beings? When looking at the human being, there are certain conditions and needs that must be fulfilled. On the one hand, these are material things (a healthy body, clothes, food and shelter, etcetera). On the other, we have psychological needs. The latter can be divided into three basic psychological needs, adapted from Deci & Ryan’s (2000) self-determination theory:

  • A feeling of safety (the idea that we can influence the environment)
  • A feeling of connection (the idea that you belong and that others will care for you and you for them)
  • A feeling of autonomy (the idea that you can be who you are and make your own decisions)

In order to be happy, these basic needs need to be fulfilled to some degree, and then a fourth principle comes into play: The feeling of purpose, the feeling that your life is worthwhile, that your life has meaning, see for example Dan Pink’s (2010) ideas on what motivates people.

Although communication has a connection to all four, it is especially the first two needs where communication is essential. The bottom line is that we need each other; we are interdependent, especially in terms of safety and in terms of connection with one another. It is therefore essential that we can communicate what we need from each other. You communicate with someone because you need something from him or her or you wantsomething from him or her. Even when your only goal is that the other understands you, this is in itself a wish, something you want from him or her. And usually we want others to understand us so that they will do something (or not do something) which is in our own interest.

In short, communication serves a purpose. How, then, do we come to know what the other wants from us? To put it another way, how do we interpret another’s message? To understand that, we must look at the four elements contained in every message (Shulz von Thun, 2010). For example, when your partner says, perhaps slightly sarcastically, ‘But you know that, honey!’ then:

  • The first element is the literal message. The factual meaning of the words. You take what is said literally (in this case, that you have knowledge about the issue at hand).
  • What is said isn’t entirely about the receiver; information about the sender is revealed in what is known as the self-expressive element. It yields information on how the sender sees himself or herself. Our imaginary partner lets us know that he or she thinks he or she knows quite a lot about the subject too.
  • The message also says something about how the sender sees the relationship between sender and receiver. Your imaginary partner seems to think it necessary to educate you, that you should have known something or taken something into account; and he or she is precisely the one to teach you this lesson. He or she casts himself or herself as the ‘clever one’ and you as the ‘simpleton who needs constant direction’.
  • And last but not least, the sender wants something from you – this is the appeal he or she is making via his or her message. Maybe your imaginary alpha-partner wants you to figuratively take a deep bow before him or her; or the subtitles could read: ‘Don’t bother me with this kind of thing’.

Shulz von Thun’s model is inspired by Watzlawick (Watzlawick, Helmick Beavin, & Jackson, 1967), a systemic therapist from California who emphasises communication in dealing with family relationship issues. Watzlawick distinguishes between content and relationship. The factual element and Watzlawick’s content are the same, and by ‘relationship’ he means both the self-expressive and the relational elements in Schulz von Thun’s model. To illustrate, your partner comes into the room and says: ‘Brrr. It’s cold in here!’ On the content level he or she is saying that the temperature in this room is rather low. On the relationship level, it depends on how the message is brought to you. If the tone is cooperative, he or she sees an egalitarian relationship between you, and he or she could easily continue with: ‘Shall I turn up the heating a little?’ If the tone is a little more biting, he or she places himself or herself above you, wants to show who is boss. The subtitle then reads: ‘Why didn’t you turn the heating up on time?

It is important to realise that all four elements are transmitted simultaneously in one and the same message. It isn’t a categorisation of different kinds of message. In every message, all four elements are always and automatically transmitted.

Watzlawick offers another basic principle: You cannot not communicate. For example, ignoring someone on a regular basis sends a powerful message, one which will not be misunderstood. Also, when you simply keep quiet, the context, your posture, your facial expression, etcetera – all could give different meanings to your silence. So, even your silence communicates something. Similarly, you cannot switch off any of the four elements in the message – they simply are there.

People therefore look to more than just the words when they interpret a message. Just varying the tone can immediately lead to an entirely different interpretation. Let’s say that ‘But you know that, honey!’ is said in a supportive tone, instead of sarcastically. Only the factual element remains the same. With all the other elements an entirely different message is being communicated.

Ever had a discussion about something trivial with your partner? About how to correctly screw the lid onto the toothpaste (or where to squeeze the tube)? Or why the cheese really must be on the right hand side of the refrigerator? How would you explain such trivialities using the four elements in the message? The question is about what the issue really is. Probably not the lid or the cheese. Usually the issue concerns the mutual relationship, and the discussion is fought out via content.

When a discussion arises in which each of the parties repeatedly brings in arguments (that is, on the content level), you can predict that the discussion will only persist. For everything that one person brings in, the other will bring in a counter-argument and vice versa. It is therefore fairly pointless to convince the other that you are right by using clever, factual arguments. It is better to step off the content level and concentrate on the relational level, or address what it is the other wants, for example by saying: ‘I notice we are only trying to convince each other. I think that isn’t really the issue. What do we actually want from each other?’ During couples counselling I often recommend: ‘It doesn’t really matter who began the discussion, it’s about who ends it’.

Another kind of misunderstanding occurs when you place the emphasis on one element and the other chooses a different one. Like the teenage daughter who interprets literally what her mother tells her: ‘You said I should change before I go out’ while wearing an equally skimpy dress as the previous one. The mother places emphasis on the appeal (less nakedness); and the daughter places it on the content (something different). And even if the mother specifically says ‘less bare’, the new outfit need only be marginally less bare than the previous one if you interpret the message literally.

Back to ‘But you know that, honey!’ Brought up in a supportive tone, it perhaps means that you shouldn’t get yourself so wound up about what another has said, and you retort: ‘Yes, rub it in!’ Apparently each places emphasis on different elements: His or her on the appeal (don’t let others get under your skin) and yours on the relational (stop telling me what I’m doing wrong).

As might be apparent in the examples, the interpretations given aren’t the only ones. Each element can be interpreted in a number of ways. And the way that a particular interpretation goes, depends on the person making that interpretation: His or her history, sensitivities and blind spots, etcetera. What is important is that what is meant by the message is less important that what the other understands. The other reacts to what he or she has understood! The well-trained communicator is less concerned with his or her intentions, and busies himself or herself with the reaction his or her message elicits in the other. The reaction, both in facial expression and in words, tells him or her what the other has understood. Here lies the basis for Observational Listening: Observing reactions rather than only listening to the content of another’s answers.

To summarise: People communicate because they are interdependent: We need each other to be able to survive. People need to be able to indicate what they need, and they use their messages to tell others what they want. Each message has two levels: That of the content and that of the relationship. The content is about the literal meaning of the words, whereas on the relationship level it is about how the sender sees the relationship between himself and the receiver. Another categorisation is to divide it into the four elements contained in every message: Next to the factual, the literal element is the (self-) expressive element (how the sender thinks about himself), the relational element (how the sender sees the relationship between sender and receiver) and the appeal (what the sender wants from the receiver). All four elements are packaged into one and the same message. It is also impossible to not communicate. Misunderstandings occur when sender and receiver each place the emphasis on a different element, or interpret each element differently from the other. Knowing this, it means that what the other understood is more important than what you meant – the basis for Observational Listening.

Literature cited:

  • Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “What” and “Why” of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior. Psychological Inquiry 11(4), 227–268.
  • Pink, D. H. (2010). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Canongate.
  • Shulz von Thun, F. (2010). Hoe bedoelt u [What do you mean]. Groningen: Noordhoff.
  • Watzlawick, P., Helmick Beavin, J., & Jackson, D. (1967). Pragmatics of Human Communication. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Excerpted from: Van Alphen, M.F. (2016). Observational Listening – The (Missing) Link between Emotion and Communication. Bloomington: Authorhouse UK.

Dutch book on Observational Listening: Van Alphen, M.F. (2015). Psychosociale gespreksvoering – observatief luisteren in de hulpverlening. Amsterdam: Boom.

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