Attēls: Sieviete runā


  1. Levels of communication
  2. Giving and receiving feed back
  3. Managing conflicts

1. Levels of communication

People usually have a simplistic view of how communication between persons takes place: one person is the "transmitter" of a message or information, and the second person is the "recipient" of that message or information. The many misunderstandings and conflicts between people prove that in practice things tend to be more complicated. Based on the ideas of Paul Watzlawick and others, the German psychologist Friedemann Schulz von Thun developed the "Four-sides model", which divides the communication process into four levels:


The matter level is the factual content of the message.

The relationship level includes information about what the speaker thinks about the other person and how the speaker sees their relationship.

The appeal level relates to what the speaker expects the other person to do after receiving the message.

The self-revealing level discloses information about the transmitter's motivation, feelings, etc.


Several participants have arrived late to the start of the class. Before the break the teacher tells the participants that class will resume after the break at 19:00 sharp.

What this message could present on Schultz von Thun's four levels:

  • Matter level: Factual information about when the class will resume.
  • Appeal level: The teacher wants the participants to be back in time; or he/she wants to make the late-comers feel bad about being late in the morning.
  • Self-revealing level: Discloses that the teacher is still annoyed by participants being late; or that he is concerned about not getting through the whole programme in time.
  • Relationship level: Demonstrates that "I am the teacher and you are the participants", showing anger, dissatisfaction, or anxiousness towards the participants.

The communication process becomes even more complex when taking into consideration that, depending on what level the recipient draws attention to, the meaning of the message can be understood in different ways. In accordance with the four levels of a message, the recipient listens with four different ears. Schulz von Thun offers this example:

A car stands in front of a traffic light. A woman is at the wheel. Next to her sits a man and says: "It's green".

The woman's reaction will depend on the ear with which she perceives this message. For example:

  • Matter level: She replies: "Are you talking about the traffic light or the trees by the side of the road?"
  • Appeal level: She starts driving.
  • Self-revealing level: She replies: "Don't worry, we'll make it in time for the start of the football match".
  • Relationship level: She replies: "I'm not blind".

The sender also always includes information about how he/she perceives:

  • Oneself - "I-message".
  • The other - "You-message".
  • Their relationship - "We-message".


The teacher says: "Last week I attended a conference In Dublin, where my friend professor Huth expressed this interesting idea..."

  • „I-message”: “I am an expert who attends conferences abroad and I have important people as friends".
  • „You-message”: “You are just participants, who know much less about this topic than I do”.
  • „We-message”: “I am superior, but I don't mind enlightening you”.

The receiver has four possibilities for how to react to this view:

  • Agree: "I agree with how you see yourself, myself, and our relationship."
  • Accept: "Well, I have a different perspective on this but I don't mind how you see things."
  • Deny: "Wait a moment, this is not how I perceive you."
  • Ignore: "You are nothing to me".

The receiver's reaction is usually not expressed explicitly. Instead, it is expressed through intonation, mimic, or gestures at the relationship level of communication.

Making communication more effective

Peter Wellhöfer recommends the following actions to make the communication process more effective:

Presenting information

Tasks for the presenter:

  • Clear presentation of content: adapt language to the audience, use examples, avoid difficult terminology and foreign words.
  • Logical structure of content: start with an overview, show how topics are linked to each other, highlight what is most important, repeat main ideas, summarise.
  • Be precise: present information to the point, avoid using redundant words.
  • Be interesting: address different sensory channels, demonstrate personal interest in the topic.
  • Non-verbal contact: establish eye contact with the audience, react to participants' non-verbal feed back, e.g. irritation or sleepiness.
  • Encourage questions: ask for feed back, clarify what has or has not been understood, involve participants by asking questions.

Tasks for the receiver:

  • Relate what is said to yourself, make an effort to understand what the presenter wants to say.
  • Do not start formulating your own ideas before the presenter has finished his/her message.
  • Look for interesting aspects in the presentation.
  • Avoid interpreting what has been said if it is not clear, ask clarifying questions instead.

How to "open up" participants

  • Show interest.
  • Support the teller with comments, e.g. Yes, hmm...
  • Support the teller with gestures, keep eye contact.
  • Allow for breaks, give time to think.
  • Listen actively, ask for additional information, e.g. You mentioned that...; Tell me more about...
  • Not just listen to what is been said but also how it is said, e.g. intonation, gestures, facial expressions.
  • Summarise and paraphrase what has been said, be open for additional information and corrections.
  • Make good use of different types of questions:
    • Open questions: to gather information and opinions.
    • Probing questions: to explore and extend.
    • Summary questions: to check/clarify what has been said.
    • Reflective questions: to get views and opinions.
    • Comparison questions: to explore similarities and differences.
    • Hypothetical questions: to think more broadly.

Some things to avoid:

  • Closed questions that can only be answered with "yes" or "no".
  • Asking "why”, because it is difficult for the respondent to assess whether the question is asked on the "Matter level" or the "Relationship level". As a result, "why questions" often provoke a defensive reaction. For example, instead of asking, "Why are you late?", the teacher could ask, "What happened that you did not make it on time?", thus emphasising that he/she is interested in the factual side of the issue.
  • Interrupt the speaker.

2. Giving and receiving feed back

Feed back offers the participants and teacher the opportunity to learn about how others have perceived their actions (positively and negatively). Also feed back enables people to check whether their perceptions about colleagues are actually true.Communication based on facts rather than stereotypes is a key aspect for successful team work.

Giving feed back is often synonymous with criticising a person's actions. But criticising is a delicate process because criticism is easily misunderstood. If criticism is poorly formulated, it can cause conflicts. Here, therefore, are some recommendations (adapted from the psychologist Carl Rogers) to ensure that feed back is provided in a way that is informative and easier to accept.

Principles for giving and receiving feed back

For the person giving feed back:

Talk about your own feelings and your observations. Say "I..." or "Me...".

Rationale: When giving feed back, you inform the other how you perceived a certain situation. Using "I" or "Me" stresses that this is your subjective view and not an objective truth. Wittgenstein's "Duck / Rabbit" is a good illustration to use for this process: feed back is the tool to use to explain what one is seeing, e.g. a duck, a rabbit, or something different altogether.

Pīle / zaķis

Another benefit is that "I messages" are easier to accept than "You messages".

Example: "I got angry when you interrupted me and I could not present my view." or "When you started talking with Anna, I thought that the conflict had been resolved".

Talk to the person, not about him. Say "You...", not "He...".

Rationale: Things that are said to me directly do become more personal and are easier to accept.

Example: Do not say "I had the impression that Anna had not understood the task completely"; say "Anna, I got the impression that you had not understood the task completely".

Be specific, describe what happened. Do not judge the person. Do not interpret or generalise. .

Rationale: The function of feed back is to share information about your observations about a certain behaviour / event and what was its impact on you. The recipient of the feed back will himself/herself draw conclusions from what is said. However, if he/she feels that the other person is misinterpreting his/her actions or is offering unsolicited advise, he/she may close up. .

Example: Do not say "Peter is always prepared to help others." Instead, say "Peter, when you got up and shared your materials with us, this really helped us to move forward and fulfil the task in time." Do not say "One can feel that Anna loves to have a leading role." Instead, say "Anna, when you started giving instructions and dividing tasks among the group, I felt that you were the leader of this group". Do not say "If you would defend your opinion more often, we would have better results." Instead, say "I felt disappointed when I learned later that you did not agree with our conclusions. I feel that our results might have been better if you would have shared your opinion with us during the discussion."

Provide the opportunity to learn from positive and negative actions. Be honest.

Rationale: Feed back should be considered a learning opportunity. When people keep their observations and feelings to themselves, they deny the other person this opportunity. The person giving feed back should consider the needs of the recipient: only comment on things that can actually be changed, choose the right moment and setting, be empathic.

In a group it is possible to also include the impressions and observations of the other participants in order to check the message of the feed back.

Everybody likes to be complimented on a job well done. Giving honest praise is highly motivating and does not cost anything.

For the person receiving feed back:

Listen and try to understand.

Rationale: When being criticised, people have the urge to explain and defend themselves. It is important to remember that feed back provides the opportunity to learn about how others perceived our actions. But as soon as somebody starts explaining himself/herself, he/she stops listening. The recipient's task is to try to understand how the other person experienced a situation and to then consider whether there is anything that can be learned from this information.

Tip: In order to suppress the imminent urge to defend his/her actions, the teacher should insist on the recipient keeping silent during the feed back process; only clarifying questions are allowed. If after a couple of minutes he/she still wants to comment on the received information, that is okay.

3. Managing conflicts

This section describes a number of principles and some possible actions for dealing with conflicts.

Transforming conflicts into problems

In a conflict both sides consider the other side to be opponents, each defending his/her interests and trying to gain greater benefits for himself/herself. Each side is fighting the other.

Attēls: Divi cilvēki cīnās viens ar otru

The preferable situation is that both sides see each other as allies trying to find a solution to a common problem. In this picture both sides sit on the same side of the table and fight the problem together.

Attēls: Divi cilvēki kopā cīnās ar problēmu

"I messages" versus "You attacks"

As in the feed back process (see above), it helps to avoid You attacks, e.g. "You did this and that" or "Your actions caused this." Such attacks can easily be experienced as insulting and humiliating, resulting in opposition or retreat. A well formulated I message will include information about the observed action, what it did to the speaker, and what were the consequences, e.g. "Peter, the idea you propose makes me angry because I get the impression that you do not care enough about this task."

Positions and needs

According to systemic theories, in a conflict situation one can differentiate between expressed positions and underlying needs.

Example: Director: “You haven't prepared the requested progress report again!”. Teacher: ”Well, if I would spend as much time as is required to deal with all these reports, I would not have any time left to prepare for my teaching!"

If the discussion is continued on this level - the Position level -- it will be difficult to find a resolution that satisfies both sides; it is much more likely that the situation will escalate into a hidden or open conflict. But by drawing attention to the underlying needs of each position, it is possible to move the conflict into a constructive setting.

Positions level

Report not prepared.


Needs level

Needs the information for his work; trust in teacher; efficient work flow.

Direct tasks seem more important than bureaucratic requirements; work overload.

Yes, but

When being wrongly criticised, one way of transforming the conflict into a constructive situation is to swallow one's pride, accept the criticism, and then invite the other to help find a solution.

Example: During the course a participant criticises the teacher for not giving him/her enough time for sharing his/her experiences. Though the teacher feels that this is an unfair criticism, he/she responds: "Sorry for that! Maybe you have some ideas for how we can balance the requirements of the curriculum with the desire for exchanging experiences and opinions?"

Acting in such a way is often difficult because being wrongly criticised can hurt greatly and this approach requires the person to neglect his/her self-respect. But in situations where it is more important to obtain a result than to work on interpersonal relationships this is an effective tool. This tool ignores the Relationship level of the message and requires the other side to engage in a constructive way in the search for a solution.

The role of the teacher (leader) in a conflict situation

(The following information is placed in a teaching setting, but the same principles are valid also in other group settings).

There are two possible types of conflicts during a training course:

  1. Conflict between participants and the teacher.
  2. Conflict between members of the group.

1. Conflict between participants and the teacher

If a conflict arises between the teacher and a participant, e.g. a participant starts provoking the teacher, refuses to take part in a task, or disturbs the work of other participants, it is important to keep a cool head and assess the situation.

Some tips:

  • The communication principles and tools described in this section can help to transfer the focus from an emotional level to a rational level, e.g. considering the four sides of communication, differentiating between needs and positions, and following the rules for giving feed back.
  • Assess what is more important at this stage: a positive atmosphere in the group or the content of the course.
  • Try to avoid getting into one-on-one confrontations with a participant because this will transform the classroom into a theatre with you and the participant fighting on the stage and everybody else watching with great interest who will come out on top. Instead, you should try to involve the group in the process. For example, in the previous example the teacher could include in the whole group in his/her response by asking if other participants also feel the same way.
  • Accept that there will almost always be some dissatisfied participants. By focusing too much on addressing the needs of a few persons the teacher may potentially lose the remainder of the group.

2. Conflict between members of the group

If a conflict arises between members of the group, the following recommendations from P. Wellhöfer provide a good guideline for the teacher.

1. Avert the threat. Do not allow participants to lose their patience, become aggressive, retreat, or create chaos:

  • Intervene energetically.
  • Emphasise the common goal.
  • Remind the group of the rules.
  • If necessary, change your own positions.

2. Formulate or let the group formulate what the conflict is about:

  • Call a spade a spade.
  • Do not deviate but try to resolve the conflict.
  • Ask the group to give a summary of what happened that led to the conflict.

3. Listen to and observe what participants are saying regarding the conflict. Ask questions and urge the group to focus on how to continue:

  • Organise the information, positions, statements.
  • Differentiate between relevant and irrelevant aspects.
  • Give suggestions for resolving the conflict.
  • Focus on long term aspects, invite the group to take on responsibility.
  • Prevent deviation from the topic.

4. Summarise in order to show the participants:

  • How you have understood things.
  • Where there are obvious contradictions.
  • How you try to analyse and structure the situation.

5. Give your own opinion. If at all necessary, only now you should present your opinion regarding the situation:

  • Comment, praise, criticise.
  • Make decisions.
  • Announce information.
  • Offer your suggestions.