All relationship problems are communication problems.
Tim says: “The window is open.”
Maya says: “I’m not your butler.”
Whoa! How did such a small interaction go so wrong? Tim said just four words, but, immediately, his girlfriend felt offended. Sadly, exchanges like this happen millions of times every single day. I’m sure you’ve had one.
Maybe, Tim just thought out loud as he noticed the window being open. Maybe, he wanted Maya to notice the birds singing outside or tell her that he opened it for a reason. Or, he really did want Maya to close the window.
Unfortunately, Maya responded so fast that she didn’t have time to consider all these options. Her heuristic-driven brain jumped to one conclusion when it should have thought about many.
We all do this. We speak before we think, and we damage our relationships in the process. Today, Maya snubs Tim. Tomorrow, Tim cuts Maya off. And the day after tomorrow, Tim and Maya break up. How sad and unnecessary.
If Tim and Maya had taken some time to talk about how they communicate, they might still be together. This is called meta-communication, and it makes perfect sense: If all relationship problems are communication problems, improving your communication will make most of your problems go away.
Psychologists have spent many years building models that help us communicate better. One of them is Friedemann Schulz von Thun, a German professor. He developed the four-ears model, a lens through which we can view any exchange between two people.
According to Thun’s model, every message has four layers:
- The Fact Layer — This includes data, hard facts, and universally verifiable information, like “The grass is green” or, in Tim’s case, “The window is open.”
- The Self-Revelation Layer — Everything you say reveals something about yourself whether you intend it to do so or not. This can be literal, for example by Tim adding “I’m cold” or hidden — “I’m cold” could be implied in “The window is open.”
- The Relationship Layer — Every statement also reveals something about what you believe about your relationship with the other person. If Tim says “The window is open” to signal he’s cold, it also means he believes his girlfriend cares about his well-being and feeling comfortable.
- The Appeal Layer — Finally, each message comes with an appeal. The appeal may not always be a favor, like “Please close the window,” it can also be something intangible, like “Please validate my concern” or “Please show me empathy.”
Misunderstandings are the result of the sender interpreting these layers differently than the receiver.
Rather than “I’m cold and tired,” Maya may have read Tim’s self-revelation as “I’m lazy.” Instead of his belief in a caring girlfriend, maybe she saw entitlement, a belief that his girlfriend should serve his every need.
Depending on the self-revelation and relationship layers, the same appeal can look vastly different, even if both parties agree on what it is. From Tim’s perspective, “Close the window” is a reasonable request, but based on Maya’s interpretations, it feels like he’s ordering her around. What can they do?
First, both Tim and Maya should think about what they’re saying. They may not always have the time to do so in advance, but even if they considered the four layers of each message in hindsight, they might still have time to correct it after the fact before the other misinterprets it.
Second, they should strive for clarity in their facts and appeals. It’s hard to be clear about your self-revelations and relationship beliefs, as these form and transpire subconsciously, but when it comes to facts and requests, it’s easy to say what you want and mean.
Imagine Tim had said: “The window is open. I’m cold and tired. Could you please close the window for me?” He would have given Maya more information and less room to misinterpret it. Therefore, he would have made it less likely for Maya to get angry.
Finally, and this is the most important part: Tim and Maya should talk regularly about how they talk to each other. “What do we believe about our relationship? What do we expect of each other? How do certain statements make us feel?” These are questions they should tackle together.
It’s easy to laugh at people like Tim and Maya for their silly little spats — but we’ve all been part of such spats before, and if we don’t learn to handle them more gracefully, we’ll suffer the consequences just the same — because Tim and Maya are us.
Clear communication is the key to lasting relationships. This isn’t a skill we can master in isolation. We must talk with each other, not just to each other.
We may not need four ears to do so, but it sure helps to remember the golden ratio ancient philosopher Epictetus pointed out 2,000 years ago: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”