Communication models based on Schulz von Thun

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A critical success factor of Project, Program and Portfolio management is the communication with stakeholder. Effective communication is proven to have an integral role in the success of projects whereas verbal communication and body language are identified as the most influencing factors. [1] Verbal and non-verbal communication always include a sender and a receiver who exchange messages. This dynamic is complex and not a logical process. Content of the message changes on the way to the receiver, some information is lost, and new information is added. Communications psychology can support one in communicating in such a way that our message comes across the way we meant it. [[2] p. 128]

This work aims at explaining how personal traits impact communication and give a more psychological approach to effective communication. Two models will be introduced. The first provides a tool with which one can critically review one's own communication behavior: the communication square. The second is a tool to reflect one’s personality to identify how it potentially impacts one’s behavior while communicating. [[2], [3] p. 31]

These models are not a quick fix for how to effectively communicate. They represent a starting point for a person to start working on themselves to understand their own actions and reactions in order to get better over time at effectively communicating.

The Importance of good communication

Interpersonal communication is a critical success factor of Project, Program and Portfolio management. The traditional PPM books solely concentrate on the technical side of communication in depth mostly in relation to external stakeholder management (e.g. used media or documentation). To conduct business successfully the internal stakeholder management is just as important. Knowledge, tools and techniques are essential for companies but are not enough to have successful projects, good leadership, and effective management. It strongly depends who uses these tools and how. Communication is the central means of conveying and exchanging information, no matter if between manager and employee, project manager and client or just project team members or colleagues with each other. Without it, the best ideas, the most important information, and the most substantial insights get lost in transit. Communication is thus essential for the design of all structures and processes in a company. [[2] p. 127] Multiple studies have been conducted, that show the correlation of effective communication and project success. [1] It therefore stands to reason, to take a closer look at effective interpersonal communication and the factors that possibly stand in the way of it, next to the technical side of communication.

In order to communicate well it is necessary to understand the behavior, the feelings and the reactions of the other person in different situations. People with a higher emotional intelligence can react better to these soft dimensions of interpersonal contact. Seven interpersonal factors affect face-to-face communication the most: Verbal communication, body language, clothing, color, proxemics, active listening, and reflection. Verbal communication and body language were identified as the most influenced factors because both are impacted by the other five factors which influence the tone of speech and the physical reaction (for example posture). [1]

What is communication?

Even though we communicate every day, views on what exactly communication entails differ [[3] p. 1]. In this context communication is defined as a message that is sent between a sender and a receiver and includes verbal and non-verbal aspects. No matter the communication device, at both ends are human beings who have needs, feelings, sensitivities, and fears, which have an impact on the way they send and receive messages [[2] p. 35]. In contrast to machines communicating with each other with predictable inputs and outputs, the human aspect makes the process dynamic, complex, and not logical. The content of the message changes on the way to the receiver, some information gets lost, and new information is added. [[2] p. 128]

Communications psychology

Figure 1: Fields of communications psychology and classification of the models discussed (own illustration based on [[3] p. 14])

Communications psychology uses models and approaches that take psychological aspects under consideration, to understand what happens in an interaction between sender and receiver. As shown in Figure 1, Communications psychology has three fields: [[3] pp. 12-23]

Factors influencing communication include characteristics of the environment (e.g. communication climate in general in the company), of the specific situation (e.g. relationship between sender and receiver) and the personal characteristics of the participants (e.g. a defensive person).

Communication behavior covers the enduring behavioral patterns of the participants (e.g. general preference of communicating via e-mail) and situational behavior (e.g. communicating face-to-face).

Results or consequences of communicative action describe the effects on the participants the communication process had. On one hand a receiver has an impression regarding the sender (e.g. perceiving the other participant as good or bad) on the other hand an impression regarding the message (e.g. attitude changes towards the discussed topic E-Mobility).

The two in the following introduced models are developed by Friedemann Schulz von Thun and fall both under the category Factors influencing communication – personal characteristics of the participants. The models complement each other at explaining how personal traits impact communication and have proven themselves especially useful for the perception and diagnosis of interpersonal processes, while at the same time giving an impulse for personal development. [4]

The communication square according to Friedemann Schulz von Thun

The communication square provides a heuristic tool with which one can critically review one's own communication behavior. Schulz von Thun wanted to make the theoretical ideas of others like Watzlawick useable for practical application. [[3] p. 31]

The communication square states that every human communication should be considered from four sides. The side of the sender is also called four beaks and the side of the receiver four ears. Every message sent transports therefore four messages at the same time. All four must be understood in order to understand the full meaning of the interpersonal interaction. Sending a message has following four sides: [[4] pp. 34-44]

Figure 2: The communication square according to Friedemann Schulz von Thun (own illustration based on [[4] p. 34])

Factual content: This side contains the explicit meaning. Facts are communicated.

Example: It is a new generation of motors.

Relationship side: A message also contains information about the relationship of the sender to the receiver, at least the opinions of the other in this certain situation. These hints mostly happen implicit in form of facial expressions, gestures, or the tone of voice.

Example: We are not on the same page. / You are not open-minded about this topic.

Self-revelation: This side contains, voluntarily or not, information about the sender. This could be hints of feelings, opinions or motives the sender has. The hints can be given explicit as well as implicit.

Example: I am disappointed in you because you forgot to turn in the report. / Hanging shoulders symbolizing disappointment

Appeal side: When communicating we often want to achieve something with our message.

Example: I want you to finish the report by 7. / You should ask John about it.

The receiver has, concurrent to the four sending sides, also four receiving sides based on his four ears. This means not only the sender sends four messages, also the receiver interprets the message on four sides, you could say he has four ears: [[5] pp. 51-64]

Factual ear (i.e. how is the fact to be understood?)

Relationship ear (i.e. How is the other person talking to me? Who do they think I am?)

Self-revealing ear (i.e. what kind of person is this?)

Appeal ear (i.e. what should I do, think or feel based on the said?)

A possible source for difficulties in communication is, that the intention of the sending person does not match the perception of the receiving person. This stems from the possibility of the receiving person to choose which side of the message they want to respond to. Another possibility is that a person has the tendency to mostly hear with one specific ear which has the consequence of simply not hearing the other transported messages or not wanting to hear them. [[5] pp. 45-46]

A good communicator is therefore characterized by being able to make clear, what message he wants to send. In addition, as a receiver he has to be able to hear all four sides of the message, understand which side was the intended one and respond to that side. [[5] p. 46] As a rule of thumb, the biggest ignitor for conflict are the relationship and the self-revelation side. Both sides are most often transported implicitly and are therefore “written between the lines”. Especially for the self-revelation side does it help to better understand oneself and that’s exactly where the next model the inner team will help.

Application – Understanding the interactions

The first rule in a business environment is, that the factual side should be the most used side of the communication square. This is often not the case, and the other sides impact the communication. In order to realize when this happens, one has to be aware of the four sides of the communication square so they can react accordingly. In general, just knowing the theory of the communication square helps with being more aware of the interactions we have. [[4] p. 34]

What can the sender do to communicate successfully? The sender can observe the reaction of the receiver and can draw conclusions on which ear they received the message. Depending on their reaction the sender can add to or correct his message. [[2] p. 136]

Example: A project manager wants his colleague John to schedule a client appointment next week.

Project manager as sender: The client appointment has to be scheduled for next week.

John as receiver: That is correct.

Project manager: Can you please schedule the appointment?

What can the receiver do to communicate successfully? Before reacting to a message, especially with the relationship ear, one should try to identify the messages with the other ears to see what other messages could have been meant. Giving the ears other names helps to give an idea when they should be used especially in a business environment: [[2] p. 137]

Figure 3: Characteristics of the four receiving ears [[5] pp. 47-60] (own illustration)

Factual ear: for fact-based discussions

Relationship ear = Feedback ear: to realize what impressions we make on others and how they react towards us

Self-revealing ear = Listening ear: to always be ready to simply listen to the problems and needs the others might have

Appeal ear: to hear expectations people around you have towards you (clients, colleagues or your boss)

Try to observe your behavior and figure out which ones of your ears are especially sensitive. Most people have one or two ears that are especially pronounced. To identify them, you should understand the characteristics of the ears (see Figure 3), so when observing your behavior you can match it to the right ears. In general, men tend to use the factual side most prominently. Once you identified them you can start to actively train the other ears to listen more on those sides. Over time one starts to automatically hear all messages and gets more control of which side they want to react to. [[2] p. 137]

Being aware of the communication square is one step towards better communication. There is a lot more a person, especially a manager, can learn from it though. The quoted books are good sources to study more on the topic. Special attention should be paid to the self-reflection side. Every time we communicate, we reveal a part of ourselves, wether we want to or not. To better understand this side the inner team is a good starting point, it does not cover the whole span of impact though. [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

The inner Team

Schulz von Thun once said: „Willst Du eine gute Führungskraft sein, dann schau´ auch in Dich selbst hinein!“ (engl. If you want to be a good manager, you should also look inside yourself) [[2] p. 74] The inner Team is a metaphor developed by him to do exactly that, reflect on one’s personality to identify how it potentially impacts one’s behavior while communicating. The behavior of a person is significantly influenced by their personality including their values, experiences, needs, motives, and fears. These personality traits can be visualized as the inner team. [[2] pp. 73-74]

The model tries to visualize why and how our inner reactions to a person, an event or a pending decision is not uniform and clear, but unclear and diverse. The inner Team is made up of multiple members. Each member has a “voice” with a certain message which wants to be heard in specific situations. It is human that a person is internally split on a subject, and thus carries at least two voices within themself. This is summarized under the term inner plurality. Realized through the inner plurality, one can imagine the inner Team as a normal project team which changes its composition depending on the topic. An inner group dynamic takes place as the individual members interact. For example, they ally or argue with each other. Differences of opinion among the individual team members can manifest themselves through back-and-forth, mixed, unclear, diverse, and fluctuating feelings. Often as a kind of emotion that we feel inside us (e.g. a bad gut feeling). [[6] pp. 21-27]

Depending on the context, the individual inner team members can react differently.

Example: The project manager is calm in the meeting with the clients because he knows that they are doing a good job and that the delays in the project are not their fault. Later he stands in front of his boss who scolded him yesterday because the project is late, and he needs him as soon as possible for another project, so the project manager is not calm anymore but defiant.

It is important to note that team members are not synonymous with behaviors or feelings. A feeling does not correspond to one voice but is usually composed of different voices. This means the feeling or behavior is the result of the group dynamics between the members of the inner team. To summarize, one member takes on a specific role in the team and all the members together then form the person and how they feel or react in different situations. [[6] pp. 21-27]

Schulz von Thun developed a method to sort out the tangled voices one hears in challenging situations so one can better understand what the individual voices are trying to tell us. Listening to oneself in a decisive situation can lead to an outcome that is more sustainable and lasting. This process basically replaces the process of weighing one’s options (thoughts, impulses or feelings) against each other. [[2] p. 74]

Figure 4: The inner team (own illustration based on [[2] p. 76])

Application – Getting to know your inner Team

To get to know your inner Team, one needs to do the following three steps. As said before every situation has a different constellation of team members, that means a situation has to be choosen which one wants to analyze (e.g. you are the project manager and have five people working in the project with you. One team member, John, has been slacking with his work and the other members had to cover for him). [[2] pp. 80-83]

1. Brainstorming: Recall the situation and try to decipher what thoughts, feelings, or impulses you had. Write down each of them and then try to figure out what member could have been responsible for the thought, feeling or impulse (e.g. who made you want to yell at your colleague when he did not finish his task on time – the project manager). The goal is to identify all participating members and give each one a name and a message. [[2] pp. 80-81]

2. Visualization: Take a pen and a piece of paper. On top of the paper draw a face and two lines as the outlines of the shoulder (see Figure 4). Now draw each team member, each should have a name (e.g. the project manager, the patient or the efficient) and a message (e.g. the efficient: we have a tight budget, there is no time for mistakes and inefficient working, and that is exactly what you keep doing). While drawing, also consider possible constellations there might be between the members (e.g. an alliance between the project manager and the efficient) and what their characteristics might be (e.g. draw louder members bigger or the shy ones hiding behind a wall). [[2] pp. 81]

3. Solution: First a prioritization must be made of which members are the most important roles for this conflict. Now put yourself in the position of those members one after the other. For every member you try to find what his needs and interests are and try to identify what a possible solution would be for him in this situation. After doing that for all the most important members, look at the collection of solution approaches and try to find a solution in which you can cover as many of the needs and interests of the members.[[2] pp. 81-82]

The here found solution is meant to give a point of reference to give an idea of what ones’ ideal solution would be. Maybe one could even identify that a team member is missing in ones’ inner team and can try to integrate it in similar situations in the future. The goal of the model is to become aware of the inner structures and thereby to strengthen the inner team building. [[2] p. 82] The book “Miteinander reden 3” gives further explanations on how using the model of the inner team can help to better ones’ skills of situation- and role-appropriate communication. [6]


Communications psychology is a soft science which means there is not one right or wrong way to see or analyze a situation. It is also the reason why the importance of the topic is overlooked. In recent years, companies realized more and more the importance of the so called “soft skills” at the workplace. But because it is not a pressing matter and there is no quick fix for it, it often gets put on the back burner and is eventually forgotten. In addition, self-reflection is something that an individuum must want to work on, it’s not something that the company can make you do.

The here presented models are two of many good approaches in communications psychology. The communication square was chosen because it breaks down an interaction in a very simple way which makes it easier to use in the day-to-day business. It is just a heuristical model and is therefore not empirically founded. The inner team was chosen because the personality of a person, which has an impact on business relations, is looked at. The analysis gives more of a simple picture of what members one carries within themselves and tries to make you aware of your inner situation to explain why you react in certain ways. For business interactions this might be enough to help with the communication. Overall, it only scratches the surface of a self-reflection journey. One could for example continue with analyzing why and from where their members come from, for which other models like the transactional analysis would help. Stefanie Stahl for example wrote a book about how to work with some of these models and gives exercises so the reader can apply the models on themself (The Child in You: The Breakthrough Method for Bringing Out Your Authentic Self).

This means the introduced methods are simply one point of looking at the situation and might not be the right starting point for everybody. They also might not be enough to completely understand one’s character and what impact it has on one’s communication behavior.

Annotated Bibliography

Zoller and Nussbaum: Karen Zoller is a psychologist working for the Schulz von Thun Institute of communication. Paul Nussbaum is a teacher in Zurich with a specialty in leadership communication and leadership psychology. The book aims to help young managers to grow into their roles by giving proven and useful knowledge about leadership and giving instructive insights from decades of leadership and consulting experience.

Röhner und Schütz: Both women, Jessica Röhner and Astrid Schütz, work in the faculty of human Science at the University of Bamberg. The book is intended to provide a basic outline of the process of human communication with its peculiarities. The most important communication models are explained, and practical examples and excursions are given.

Schulz von Thun – Miteinander reden 1 und 3: Friedemann Schulz von Thun is a psychology professor at the University of Hamburg with a specialty in consulting and training. With his books and in his institute of communication he aims to help better social competence through technical learning, methodical practicing, and human maturing. His models described in his books build a humanistic-systemic foundation of communications psychology.

No 'Key Reference' was chosen, because none of the provided books by the professors included a psychological view on communication. Most of them simply state, that effective communication with stakeholders is important and that a strategy is to be chosen. PMBOK for example shortly introduces two "communication models", one for cross cultural communication and one for the effectiveness of communication channels. In the Prince2 report they describe how to make a communication management approach and references more the business transaction as the soft skills aspect.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 H. Shakeri, M. Khalilzadeh, S. Raslanas and E. K. Zavadskas, „What do project managers need to know to succeed in face-to-face communication?,“ Economic Research-Ekonomska Istraživanja, Bd. 34, Nr. 1, pp. 1094-1120, 2020,
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 2.17 K. Zoller and P. Nussbaumer, Persönlichkeitsbewusste Mitarbeiterführung: Den eigenen Führungsstil reflektieren und erfolgreich weiterentwickeln, Hamburg, Zürich: Springer Gabler, 2019
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 J. Röhner and A. Schütz, Psychologie der Kommunikation, Osnabrück: Springer, 2020
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 F. Schulz von Thun, J. Ruppel and R. Stratmann, Miteinander reden: Kommunikationspsychologie für Führungskräfte, Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Verlag, 2017
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 F. Schulz von Thun, Miteinander reden 1: Störungen und Klärungen: Allgemeine Psychologie der Kommunikation, Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1996
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 F. Schulz von Thun, Miteinander reden 3: Das 'Innere Team' und situationsgerechte Kommunikation, Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1998
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