Four Components of Effective Communication

I am 100% responsible for every communication event I am in.

Miscommunication is often the culprit in poor relationships. Usually, people don’t intend to miscommunicate, they just have poor communication skills. And you really can’t blame the folks. Most of us are simply not trained in how to communicate effectively. One of the easiest and simplest ways to more fully understand another person’s communication is by looking at the four components of communication in any message.


At a minimum, every message has at least these four levels:

The Content. At this level, the message is exactly as said. For example, “I am hungry” is the message, and the content of the message is “I am hungry.” The words are taken literally, and there is no more to it.

The Intent. The intent of a message is what is meant by the message. It is not as simple as the literal content. Using our previous example, intent is the meaning of “I am hungry.”   So what does “I am hungry” mean? It could mean simply, “I am hungry”; it could mean, “Please go get me something to eat”; it could mean, “When you see a fast food place pull off the road, no hurry, just giving you warning so we can get some food in the next thirty minutes”; Or it could mean, “I guess that is why I have a headache.” Notice how the simple statement “I am hungry” could mean many different things!

The Process. The process refers to the many ways words are said. It is the “how.” Depending on how you say it, the same statement “I am hungry” can be framed as a question, a command, for fact-finding purposes, or even as an empty but polite gesture. For example, sometimes, my mother offers a mixed-level process when she says, “So you will invite me over Sunday, won’t you?” Ah, disguised as a question, this is really a demand. How confusing if I take the statement literally. And my response better be the appropriate response for a mother-to-son demand; otherwise, the implications are severe. So if I did take it literally as a question and responded with a “No, I don’t think I will; this Sunday is not good,” I would most likely get a very negative response.

The Emotion. Each and every message carries an emotional charge, and the emotion of any message is the vibration that is sent along with the content. The emotion can be happy, joyful, sad, pensive, angry, hurtful, or whatever emotion you send along with your message. When you say something that is angry, your words carry a significant negative vibration. When you are joyful, your words carry a positive loving vibe. For example, just try this: say this to out loud with an angry tone, “I’m hungry!”  Now repeat the same phrase with a loving, cute, tone, “I’m hungry…” Can you feel the difference?

These four components of communication exist in every message, but they are often not clear. As a communicator, aligning your messages with these four components creates an extraordinary effect on your outcome. A message that is clear and concise on all four levels, with a transparent intent, phrased appropriately, and carrying a positive charge, gets a very high score for effectiveness, say 10 out of 10. On the other hand, when your message is mixed, or blurred, or indirect, your effectiveness score is immediately lower.

Many people send mixed messages, because they are not clear on what they are trying to achieve. They just speak words without any real thought to the outcome or implications of their words. Other times, people purposefully send mixed messages to hide their intent or to avoid a certain type of communication. They have said to themselves, “I want to be polite”; “I want to be politically correct and not rock any boats”; “I do not want to come off as arrogant”; “I want to come off as humble”. When these inner-dialogue rules are at play, the messages sent by these folks are often more of a 5 out of 10 on the communication effectiveness scale. These messages are often rightly perceived as disingenuous or manipulative. They can also get a very different response than they intended because the message may have a double meaning or simply be unclear.

Many of us, especially with our good friends, co-workers and families, know how to “read” people’s blurred communication. We have learned how to pick up environmental or contextual cues, which give us clues to the real meaning of the sender’s message. Nevertheless, in many cases, people will simply miss the mark, then poor communication and misunderstanding occurs.

Some people have bad habits or manners, or are simply not very skilled at interpersonal communication. There is no bad intent in their messages, but their messages are structured poorly, and ultimately create confusion and could offend the receiver. In the case of my mother’s message “You will invite me over Sunday, won’t you?” this message has the intent of “I would really like to come over Sunday so I can see you and the kids.” It is actually a loving statement. However, she is purposely forwarding a controlling command (The Process), while trying to disguise her message as a polite request.

Other times, you get people who just do not know what they are doing. They mix up questions and statements and requests and all sorts of other stuff, just trying to clarify in their own minds what they really want. In essence, “thinking out loud”; since they are not clear about what they want in their minds, they use the communication process to work things out. They might ask, “Hey, why don’t we go to the movies?” and then answer their own question “I don’t really feel like going to the movies.” Their first question, “Hey, why don’t we go to the movies?” was more of an internal question and not directed toward their receiver. They were simply accessing how they felt even though it was coming out like they knew what they wanted.

So to be a great communicator, not only must you align the content, intent, process and emotion of your message when you speak, you must also be a great listener when others are talking. Being a great listener, however, can be very tough. First, you need to listen for the content (what was actually said) and the intent (what was the meaning) of the message. Then, you must determine the process, (was that really a question or a statement), and the emotion (what the communicator felt at the time – happy, sad, angry, playful, etc.)

This is hard when you are just starting to listen deeply for all four components, but after a short period of time, discerning the four components becomes simple. The information comes at you all at once and you perceive it all at once as a singular whole. You will soon get what people are saying more fully, and you can often sense when they themselves are confused or disturbed.

When you are more adept at listening for all four components, what would you do when faced with an unclear message? I simply ask a clarifying question so I know how to respond. If I am asked, “Do you want to go to the movies?” and I am not sure if this is a real question, or if it is an “I am working out my own feelings,” I reply, “I am not sure if you really want to go, what other options sound good to you?” Or when someone says, “I’m really hungry” I might respond, “Me too. Did you want to stop and get some food?”

In a more heated context, this can be a bit trickier. If Sally says to me, “I am so pissed off at Cody right now; he is flying off the handle emotionally and holding everyone else hostage.”

I ask myself, What is she really saying to me? I get the part about Cody (the content), and that she is angry (the emotion), but I am not sure about her intent and the process. Is she asking me to do something about this situation, like go upstairs and talk to him? Or is she just sharing with me her frustration? In which case, I should just listen, be there for her, and let her vent. So, what should I do? What would be the appropriate response?

First, let’s clarify. I respond “Boy honey, that must be frustrating. That kind of behavior gets me angry too. Is there something you think we should do about this?” That response now shows her I got three parts of her message: I understand what she said, how she said it and how she felt. But I need clarification on the fourth (her intent). If she responds, “Well, I have done everything I can and am at the end of my rope, will you go talk to him?” I now know what to do and how to proceed because she is asking me to speak to him. If on the other hand, she responds, “No I think this is just the phase he is in right now. I just wish it were easier.” Now, I know that there is no question or call for action in her message, but simply her need to share and vent her frustration. I can now say, “Well, he sure is putting us to the test and you seem to be handling him as well,” to acknowledge and confirm her message, and then go over and rub her shoulders for a while.

Clarity on all four components in a message is rare but essential to effective communication. When I am confused about the meaning of a message, I have learned that is much better to clarify than to assume. Although you may assume correctly, in my experience, most assumptions are wrong and that just escalates the misunderstanding. For example, when sitting around for a family dinner, Parker may not eat anything. When I ask what’s going on, he may reply, “Well Dad, I’m not hungry.” This may be true, or it may not be true. Maybe he ate junk food after school and is waiting for the dessert, maybe he is stressed about a test he has to study for, maybe there is a girl issue, or maybe he is just mad at his mother for something that happened earlier and is punishing her by not eating the dinner she made. Without more information, who knows! But Sally (his mom) may assume she caused the refusal to eat and say “Oh Parker, just get over it and eat your dinner.” A conclusion to an incorrect assumption will just immediately cause Parker to ask to be excused and then storm off.

When you make an assumption, you make a mistake! Be careful, as you may find yourself fixing an unnecessarily escalated miscommunication problem after making an incorrect assumption (especially when you feel that your assumption is correct).