When we think about communication, we generally divide it into two categories—verbal and nonverbal behavior. But, according to the “four ear” model of communication, we speak and listen through four separate channels. The question is, when you communicate through one of those channels, what will your listener hear? A new study that used behavioral neuroscience to investigate the factors that influence how your message is received focused on the role of the hormonal neurotransmitter, oxytocin. Although it's based in neuroscience, this study provides an understanding of how to make sure your listeners actually hear what you want them to hear.
University of Munich’s Michaela Pfundmair and colleagues (2016) based their work on the four-ear model theory, which proposes that each verbal message contains four different dimensions of communication:
This model suggests that what you communicate to others depends on which message you hope they will receive. If you want to address relationship issues, that’s the dimension you’ll emphasize. You wouldn’t provide a weather report to your intimate partner when you’re trying to get through a conflict about whether your partner loves you as much as you love your them.
What the recipient of your message hears, however, is less clearly determined. Your partner is potentially listening with all four ears and will have to decide which dimension your message is intended to convey. The weather example is perhaps a little extreme, but consider what might happen while trying to overcome a conflict about how you and your partner handle household finances. Your partner might think you’re providing factual information (what’s in your bank account) when instead you’re hoping that the conversation will lead to more openness and better communication about your finances in general.
Another example, taken from the Pfundmair et al study, involves a communication in which you’re trying to send a message containing an appeal, such as seeing if your friend will watch your cat while you’re out of town for a few days. Your recipient can decide to ignore the appeal and instead figure that you’re simply talking about how much you care about your cat (self-revelation). The authors believe that messages intended to communicate an appeal are the most difficult to get across to produce the desired result. They argue that this is because appeals take the most effort to process by recipients: “Its underlying presumption is a concept of communication as social exchange or even unilateral donor action on behalf of the recipient” (p. 63). The appeal message attempts to create an effect. The listener has to decide whether to help realize this effect. As a speaker, you also know that such messages may not lead to that desired result, so you may not communicating them so successfully.
To determine whether people would be more receptive to appeal messages when their empathy is aroused, the researchers augmented the socially responsive channels in participants by giving them intranasal doses of oxytocin. One of this hormone’s primary effects is to increase empathy. If their empathy is aroused, participants should be more willing to accommodate an appeal message.
To examine the effect of oxytocin vs. a placebo on the interpretation of appeal messages, 43 male participants (with an average age of 30) completed a four-ear communication questionnaire. The questionnaire contained 16 scenarios for which participants were asked to rank-order the extent to which they represented one of the four types of messages. One scenario involved asking participants to imagine that a friend told them about having a fight with his girlfriend. The participant had to rank which of four interpretations they thought the statement communicated. In this example, the message could contain factual content (“I had a fight with my girlfriend"), self-revelation (“I’m worried about my relationship”), relationship information (“I feel that I can talk to you about my girlfriend”), or appeal (“Please listen to me and give me advice”).
Across the board, participants who were given oxytocin ranked the appeal dimension as highest of the four possible interpretations. This finding fit with the belief of the authors that messages that communicate appeal are the most likely to lead to social bonding. Although it’s true that appeals require more effort on the part of the listener, by communicating your desire for help, you stimulate the recipient to respond in a more prosocial manner. The oxytocin worked because it primed participants to hear the message as a request for help rather than a statement of fact.
We can’t routinely give our friends and family members oxytocin to help them focus on our appeals, but we can still learn from this study: By making clear that an appeal is an appeal, you can open the channels of reciprocity between you and the people with whom you interact. For example, if you want your partner to help out more with those financial balancing acts at home, instead of saying how much time you’ve spent (information), let your partner know that you’d like some help. When you communicate more clearly, you make it more likely that your partner’s appeal “ear” will be tuned in to that channel.
Similarly, when trying to completely understand what others are saying to us, take the extra effort and judge whether you’re receiving an appeal message that's disguised as one of the other three dimensions. Having more fulfilling social interactions means that we must all try to communicate, and listen, through all four of our ears.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017
Pfundmair, M., Lamprecht, F., von Wedemeyer, F. M., & Frey, D. (2016). Your word is my command: Oxytocin facilitates the understanding of appeal in verbal communication. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 7363-66. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2016.07.213
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