What is a communication model?

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Bild repräsentiert den Titel "Was ist eigentlich ein Kommunikationsmodell 2019?"

Communication models- How can they be used to improve corporate communication?

The majority of us may assume what a communication model is, as its name already reveals it: It is a model that describes communication in such a way that an optimization can be carried out on the basis of the model. In order to be able to use the models to improve communication in everyday life and corporate communication, or to optimize various communication tools and communication concepts, we must first understand the various interdisciplinary approaches to the concept of communication. 

What is communication?

In addition to the various components of communication such as verbal communication (spoken or written language) and non-verbal communication (body language, gestures, facial expressions, pitch), there are also different ways of looking at the term. 

Communication in sociology: Sociology regards communication as a social process involving at least two people engaged in dialogue. 

Communication in linguistics: linguists assume that language is the primary medium of communication through which two or more people interact with each other. The focus of the scientific approach lies in the study of languages, cultural differences and language practice, including rhetorical aspects.

Communication from a technical point of view: From a purely technical point of view, communication is a way of exchanging information, knowledge and understanding between two parties. These parties do not necessarily have to be human beings, because according to this definition, the exchange of information between two computer systems or networks is also to be understood as communication. However, the various approaches have a number of things in common, which can be summarised as the concept of communication:

  • Communication is a process in which at least two actors are involved as senders and receivers.
  • The transmission of information through communication is based on reciprocity and environmental relevance.
  • Communication serves a specific, predefined purpose.
  • The aim is to explain communication as a whole and thus make it comprehensible.
  • Problems in communication are to be identified and solved with the help of models.

Drei Menschen stehen in einer Konversation voreinander.

Communication models by disciplines

There are many communication models that can be divided into functional models, media-effective models as well as interpersonal and culture-based models due to the different disciplinary approaches. Over the years, four models in particular have emerged as particularly relevant communication models, which we would like to briefly introduce to you here. 

Overview of the most relevant communication models

The individual models are also – and especially – of great importance in our modern, digital age, although some of them are already very old. In the following, we would like to summarise what makes up the various models, how they can be used for corporate communication and personal communication in everyday life.

Organon model after Buhler (1934)

Karl Bühler developed the sign model as early as 1934 to illustrate his concept of the sign of natural language. Language is presented here as a communicative ability that has three basic functions:

  • Expression function (in the form of characters)
  • Display form (in the form of symbols)
  • Appell function (in the form of signals)

The printout function is identified by statements from the transmitter, which uses the appropriate characters for this purpose. Using the display function, the characters become symbols that can stand for objects or certain facts. The appeal function turns the symbols into signals that serve a specific purpose and are addressed directly to the receiver. 

Transceiver model after Warren Weaver & Claude E. Shannon (1940) 

Probably the best-known communication model is the 1940 Shannon-Weaver communication model, which illustrates the exchange function of communication and the problems that can arise. The model thus provides detailed information on what successful communication looks like and how misunderstandings can be avoided. The original model was designed to optimize telephone communication and avoid outages. Later the basic idea of the model was taken up again by Stuart Hall and Paul Watzlawick, so that today it is a generally accepted basic principle in communication science. 

The basic idea is quite simple: communication always involves two sides, namely the sender as the transmitter of a message and the recipient to whom the information is addressed. The language is used as the transmission code. The recipient of the message must decrypt the code, which is composed of various aspects. If this does not work properly, misunderstandings can arise. The content of the message must therefore be interpreted correctly by the recipient. However, this is only possible if both parties use the same code. However, there are a number of disruptive factors such as different languages, ambiguities, misunderstood sarcasm, misinterpreted gestures and facial expressions and so on.

Paul Watzlawick summed up this fact with a famous quote:

“Thought is not said, said is not heard, heard is not understood, understood is not intentional, intentional is not skillful, skillful and intentional is not done and done is not maintained. “

It is important to understand that the model not only applies to speech, but also to paraverbal communication, which includes factors such as pitch, volume, tone of voice, tempo, pauses, etc. So also rhetorical aspects have a great influence on the understanding of what is said. Body language also uses the same principles, so that the model can also be used completely without language. What is missing in this model, however, is the inclusion of the organism with all its motivational, decision-making and learning processes, so that the classic sender-receiver model is at least viewed critically today with regard to interpersonal communication. If one includes stimulus-response equations, as does the American psychologist Robert S. Woodworth, the model can still be used today to explain communication and the interpretation of problems in the transmission of information.  How essential approaches to achieving good communication can be derived from this:

  • Questioning the code – Without a common code, averaging cannot be transferred. One should therefore always ask oneself whether there can be problems already with the choice of the code.
  • Pay attention to feedback – The response of the interviewees is an essential part of the exchange. The feedback refers to the language as well as the physical signals. They should always be observed and incorporated into the further process.

Circular model after Watzlawick (1969)

Paul Watzlawick has developed various communication models as the basis for his five basic rules (pragmatic axioms) of human communication. He does not assume straightforward communication, but rather that communication is always circular. 

According to this model, successful communication therefore depends not only on the behaviour of the transmitter but also on the reaction of the receiver. Compared to the sender-receiver model, the receiver is even more important here. He formulated five (not scientifically verifiable) principles of communication.

  1. Axiom of the impossibility of non-communicating
    Watzlawick says that one cannot not communicate because one simply always communicates. Even if you just stare at the floor, you signal that you don’t want to communicate. Every behaviour also contains a communicative message.
  2. Axiom of the content and relationship aspect
    Watzlawick assumes that every communication consists of both a content and a relationship aspect. The content aspect is the message itself, the relationship aspect deals with the question of how the message is received. Especially non-verbal factors such as gestures, facial expressions and body language as well as the relationship between sender and receiver play an important role. If rhetorical means are used which use the sender and receiver differently (e.g. irony), misunderstandings can quickly arise. Certain reactions of the other person can be specifically influenced by gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice of the speaker. Reactions such as confirmation, rejection or devaluation of what has been said can not only be triggered specifically, but can also lead to a disruption of communication via the relationship level.
  3. Axiom of cause and effect
    The principle here is the assumption that the nature of a relationship is shaped by the interpretation of communication processes. Each participant of the interaction thus gives the relationship a structure and a reaction takes place to each stimulus. This results in a chain of behaviour that can experience disturbances at each individual link. According to Watzlawick, these could be avoided by each interaction participant having the same information. So subjectivity in perception often leads to disturbed communication processes.
  4. Axiom of analog and digital communication
    Here the thesis plays a central role that humans always consist of both analog (e.g. a drawing, a smile or the naming of an object) and digital content aspects (usually the spoken language). Digital content aspects can be for example complex knowledge, logical connections or negations. Analogous aspects, on the other hand, refer to the relationship aspect of a message.
    What is crucial here is to understand that digital communication has a complex syntax but lacks semantics in the field of relationships. Semantic potential lies in analog communication, which in turn has no syntax. Accordingly, content is conveyed on the digital level, whereas the analogue level represents the relationship level. Playing with these two levels can decisively influence the meaning and evaluation of communication. As an example, Watzlawick cites a kiss on the forehead of a child. This can mean both “I love you” and “please leave me alone for a moment”.
  5. Axiom of complementary or symmetrical communication                    Here it is assumed that communication is always either symmetrical or complementary, depending on whether the relationship between the interlocutors is based on equilibrium (at eye level) or difference. 
  • Symmetric communication is about equally strong partners, which leads to mirror-like behaviour.
  • In complementary communication, one partner is always superior and one is inferior. The basis of successful communication here is the complement. 

The four-page model after Schulz von Thun (2000)

The concept, also known as the classic communication model or four-ear model, assumes that communication always takes place on four levels – both on the sender and receiver side.

The four transmitter channels are:

  1. factual content
  2. self-revelation
  3. relationship statements
  4. appeal

The four receiver channels (ears) are corresponding:

  1. Sachohr
  2. revelatory ear
  3. relationship ear
  4. roll call ear
  • The factual content refers to the pure subject matter, i.e. the information itself.
  • Self-revelation means the combination of self-representation and self-revelation, i.e. the question of what the spoken word expresses about the speaker. 
  • The relationship statements are always part of the message and provide information about the relationship between sender and recipient.
  • The desired effect is achieved via the appeal channel. It is therefore the sense and purpose that the speaker pursues with what he says that is meant.

It is interesting to note that all four channels are used for every type of communication. So even in a form of communication in which the channels are greatly reduced (such as via chat messages, telephone conversations, etc.), the other channels play a part in the interpretation of what is said in addition to the factual level. Therefore, misunderstandings can quickly arise, especially in communication via new media, if the contents, which are unconsciously incorporated via the other three ears, do not arrive as they were originally intended. 

Iceberg model

Paul Watzlawick formulated the iceberg model on the basis of the four-ear model in connection with Sigmund Freud’s basic idea of the subconscious. It assumes that in communication, the factual level such as information, figures, data and facts make up only 10% – 20% of communication. The remaining 80 – 90% are unconscious and are not communicated verbally. This is where the relationship level, the appeal level or the self-barrier level fall into, so that non-verbal elements such as gestures, facial expressions and so on also unconsciously flow into the communication.

If the factual level and the relationship level are not reconciled, conflicts can arise. 

Bildausschnitt einer Firmendiskussion; Bild repräsentiert Unternehmenskommunikation.

Significance for corporate communications

A closer look at the various communication models reveals some key aspects that play a central role in successful communication:

  • Communication consists of a subject and a relationship level
  • Depending on the position and relationship between sender and receiver, the feedback will be different.
  • Non-verbal aspects can underpin what has been said or cause misunderstandings.
  • Senders and recipients of messages must use the same code.
  • The reaction of the receiver can be controlled and must be included in the active communication. 
  • The relationship level must also be included in communication via reduced channels (online, on the phone, etc.). 

If one considers these core aspects, this has a direct impact on external and internal corporate communications. For example, the way superiors communicate with employees plays a very important role. If you want to achieve symmetrical communication at eye level, working together on problem solutions or promoting an innovative concept, it makes no sense to communicate from above via instructions or forced opinions. The same applies to interdisciplinary communication across departments and/or teams. 

But it is not only in internal communication that one should ask oneself whether one would like to receive symmetrical or complementary reactions. In our modern communication age, which is based on active participation in dialogue and in which everyone can become a communicator, a communication concept should define how the factual and relationship level should be designed in contact with employees, customers or partners. 

Channel reduction, i.e. the use of modern communication tools such as intranet, blogs, internet and apps, can lead to an underrepresentation of the relationship level, which in turn can lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Visually supported communication through moving images, explanatory videos or other audiovisual, emotional content is therefore booming and can play a decisive role in establishing a distinctive culture of dialogue. This in turn leads to better innovation, a strengthening of the brand and higher loyalty and motivation, especially internally. 

Konversation zwischen zwei Damen im Büro. Bild repräsentiert die Unternehmenskommunikation.

Therefore, the following tips can be summarized for a more successful internal and external corporate communication based on the communication models:

Tips for improving corporate communications

  1. Open communication at eye level plays a decisive role in establishing a culture of dialogue.
  2. Storytelling, video messages and emotional, audiovisual content strengthen the relationship level in external corporate communications. 
  3. For modern, digital communication with reduced channels, compensatory interpersonal dialogues must be implemented.
  4. Communication should be based both internally and externally on feedback. Customers, employees and other people involved in the company must be actively involved in communication. 
  5. Communication should be adapted according to the channel used, the target group reached and the recipients so as to prevent misunderstandings. 
  6. Internal communication must take precedence over external communication. If internal organisation members learn about external sources of information, but not about internal communication structures, this endangers the relationship between the organisation and its members, which can disrupt subsequent communication.