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Climate Hustle

The four sides model for improving climate communication

Posted on 31 July 2010 by olivermarchand

Guest post by Oliver Marchand

It is quite obvious that discussions about global warming theories can be quite emotional. Especially when debating with closely related people, a heated debate may have unwanted side effects. In a recent workshop on skeptic arguments at the swiss climate camp, a majority of the audience showed interest in my ideas how to improve our own communication when talking to skeptics. I am not at all a professional in this area, but I would like to share my ideas with you here to see if it helps us to improve our communication skills.

A classical way to analyze communication is by the "four sides model" by the German psychology professor and expert on inter personal communication Friedman Schulz von Thun. Let me explain the model in a few words. For simplicity, let's talk about a 'sender' saying something and a 'receiver' who is listening. Schulz von Thun postulates that there are four channels that we communicate on simultaneously, namely:

  • Fact channel: the facts communicated
  • Self-revealing channel: what the sender says about him or herself
  • Relationship channel: what is being said about the relationship
  • Appeal channel: what the sender wants the receiver to think or do


 

Simply speaking, in good communication, we neither have a mix of channels (sender said something on channel A, but receiver listened on channel B), nor a misunderstanding of the content communicated in each channel. Of course, the channels have two ends: four mouths and four ears! That means that the sender speaks in all four channels simultaneously and the receiver hears with all four ears at the same time.

Let's look at an example from debating about skeptic arguments. Imagine you're saying: "The earth is dramatically heating, that's obvious." Depending on how you're saying this and the context, the listener may be hearing very different things. Maybe you are trying to communicate the Fact channel and would like to quote all the different studies on the earth's heat in the last 100 years. But what if the listener hears "You shouldn't fly!" (Appeal channel) or "I think you are stupid not to know this by now!" (Self-revealing channel). I hope you are getting the point of the model.

Now, how can we avoid this type of miscomunication? A good start is to keep this model in the back of your head and try to communicate clearly in all those channels. My personal advice is the following:

  1. Focus on the fact channel and formulate the messages as such (e.g.
    do not use rethorical elements like "that's obvious!"). Skeptical Science is a very good role model for this. If you don't know an answer to an argument immediately, defer answering and take your time to research, instead of inadvertently switching to other channels.
  2. Use "I" sentences, when communicating on the Self-revealing channel. I find this channel less problematic. Let people know when you are concerned about the earth, the future or your children.
  3. The appeal channel is more complicated. I think that a lot of miscommunation happens on this channel, as the receiver's bad conscience is very likely to hear a lot of things on this channel that were not really said. Maybe you would really love to see the other person immediately starting to be proactive in protecting the climate ASAP, but you can't expect for people to change in a second. My personal feeling is that the facts are so clear that your appeal will come if you succeed communicating the facts.
  4. Most dangerous is the relationship channel. I personally try to ensure that I do not make any difference in my relationship to my communication partner, whatever the reactions to my arguments are. This is especially important for very close people. If you are soft on the person, you can be hard about the facts. So keep on listening, don't raise your voice unnecessarily, watch your face expressions, fit in a joke at times, and don't mix up other things with the debate (like indicating not going to lunch with a co-worker, because he or she didn't accept what you said about a skeptic argument).

It is difficult to follow the advice given above, because the channels are never so clearly defined and it's complicated to focus on all of these things at once, while discussing the complex matter of climate change. After all my advice is far from a simple recipe. But I think every intention of improving your communication will show on your face!

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Comments

Comments 1 to 4:

  1. A very insightful post. I want to contribute a different perspective, one I learned on my work trying to abolish the death penalty. This approach is designed to help you communicate better by understanding your audience and understanding what you are trying to accomplish. The theory is that anyone you are speaking to will fall somewhere on the following six point scale:

    1 -- Totally committed: believes climate change is a serious issue and is committed to working in some way towards a solution.

    2 -- Convinced climate change is a problem, but is less certain about how serious the problem is and/or is less engaged in dealing with it.

    3 -- Somewhat uncertain on the subject of climate change, but leans toward believing it is a problem.

    4 -- Uncertain about climate change, but leans towards believing it is not a problem or has been over-hyped by activists.

    5 -- Does not believe climate change is a problem, or believes that proposed solutions are more destructive of society etc. than the problems they purport to fix. Believes nothing should be done.

    6 -- Actively denies climate change and works to prevent the dissemination of information or the implementation of any solutions of the problem.

    Obviously these divisions are somewhat arbitrary, and other facets of support/opposition can be included. Think of these not as discrete boxes but markers on a spectrum.

    The goal of any discussion is not to move a person from where they are to #1: this simply will not happen and will often entrench the person you are speaking to more strongly in where they are, or even move them in the opposite direction. Rather, the goal is to move a person one stage up the scale: from firm opposition to uncertain, from uncertain to weak concern, from weak concern to strong concern, and finally to activism. People in #6 may be immovable, but in speaking to them you have to remember that there will be a lot of #5's and #4's listening. Our belief in using this in anti-DP work is that we will win if we can move a majority of people one step up.
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  2. Chiming in with dcruzuri, a thought-provoking post that causes me to scrutinize my own efforts and motivations. Thanks!

    John Cook caused me to reevaluate what I presume to call my "communications." I've got a proclivity toward mocking humor that may be enjoyable for some but is not at the end of the day probably very effective for communicating.

    On another note, this climate affair is becoming a matter of serious interest to social scientists. Lots of puzzling features to investigate. Nice to see a post looking at the scene from that perspective.
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  3. Re. 1 dcruzuri

    I think there's a No.7, which is different to No.5 or 6, and I come across more and more often: Those who believe climate change and temperature increase is beneficial for mankind, CO2 emissions should continue to increase as it will benefit crop output and therefore feed the hungry, and curbing CO2 emissions is tantamount to genocide.
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  4. At the risk of sounding too much like someone from the Aspen Institute, I will say that we all have a lot more to learn from Aristotle's "On Rhetoric" than from this Schulz von Thun. The latter's "four sides" model is inappropriate for the problem at hand for many reasons, but mainly for the following two:

    1) when von Thun is described as "expert at _inter-personal_ communication", that means exactly what it sounds like: his model is more appropriate for describing (mis)communication between husband and wife or father and children. I doubt he even really meant it for policy debate.

    2) the model confuses under four heads, notions that are really different. Perhaps Marchand was admitting as much, when he said, "the channels are never so clearly defined". But the confusion is unnecessary, and wholly absent from Aristotle's classic on the subject.

    So, for example, his channel labedled'appeal' is simply wrong: the main sense of 'appeal' we have to be concerned about in these debates is a rather different sense of the word, namely, "what is the (emotional) appeal to the listener of the argument?"

    This is something that Aristotle analyzed very well in http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/rhetoric.html.

    The authors of the various articles on Skeptical science are very good at presenting the facts, or, as Aristotle put it, at the Dialectic, but not so good at Dialectic's counterpart, Rhetoric.

    It is high time to address this imbalance.
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