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Calling all sales reps: these 7 communication models should be on your radar!

If you conduct sales talks on a regular basis, then you need to learn the ins and outs of communication models
Image: © nenetus / Adobe Stock

How you can benefit from communication models

Communication models have one thing in common: they demonstrate that communication takes place on various interesting levels and is not simply about exchanging information. Once you are familiar with the many layers of verbal and nonverbal messages, you will find it easier to conduct more personal talks with customers and recognize their needs, thus allowing you to offer them more suitable products. The right communication strategy will also boost customer loyalty and retention in the long term. Here are the seven key communication models.

#1 The sender-receiver model: a basic communication framework

With the sender-receiver model, Claude E. Shannon and Warren Weaver laid the foundation for understanding communication processes. In this model, people who communicate with each other are either senders or receivers. If the sender wants to share something, the message (information, opinions, needs, or feelings) is encoded into a signal, such as spoken language. The receiver then decodes the content of the signal, for example using his or her ears. Any disruptions during transmission can result in misunderstandings. Different communication channels are used:

  • Verbal communication: language or the spoken and written word
  • Paraverbal communication: vocal qualities and tone, such as intonation, volume, and pace
  • Non-verbal communication: gestures, facial expressions, posture, or movement across the room

#2 The iceberg model: delving beneath the surface

The iceberg model was developed by the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. The iceberg in the name illustrates the different levels of communication. While the visible part of the iceberg only makes up about 20 percent (the factual level), the remaining 80 percent is hidden beneath the surface of the water (relationship level). Communication largely takes place invisibly, which makes it complicated. The areas are subdivided into the following:

  • The factual level contains conscious – i.e. visible – and analyzable statements, such as facts, figures, and data. It is usually communicated verbally.
  • The non-verbal, invisible relationship level comprises unconscious aspects, such as instincts, experiences, values, feelings, motives, and interpretations.

For you as a sales rep, that means you can only successfully engage with your customers if you do it on both a rational and emotional level. Simply bombarding them with facts about a software product, for example, isn’t an effective approach – you also need to explain what they will personally gain from it. Taking the stress out of day-to-day tasks or saving them a significant amount of time are things that benefit them individually and will appeal to them emotionally. It is also wise to figure out the preferences of your potential buyers from the outset. By identifying different customer types and addressing them appropriately, you’ll be more likely to win them over.

#3 Read the signs using the organon model

The German linguistic psychologist Karl Bühler was the brains behind this communication model. Its name is derived from Plato’s metaphor of language as a tool (“organon” meaning “tool” in Greek). While many other models are confined to two parties, the organon model brings in an object as an additional part that gives rise to communication. The signs that are exchanged between the sender and receiver form the focal point of the communication. A distinction is made between three functions:

  • Expressive function (related to the sender)
  • Representation function (related to the situation)
  • Appeal function (related to the receiver)

For example, if during the sales talk, your customer says something along the lines of “I’m still not satisfied”, he or she is opening up about how they’re currently feeling. In this case, the sender is using the expressive function to voice internal thoughts. If a customer says “you’re going to have to explain that to me again in more detail” or something similar, it is his or her way of making an appeal and should trigger a suitable response from you. If your customer merely wants to share a neutral piece of information, for example “the budget has already been discussed”, no response or opinion is required of you as the receiver. According to Bühler, if the sender and receiver are aware of what function is being used at that particular point in the conversation, misunderstandings can be averted,

#4 Watzlawick’s five axioms: emotions shape communication

The communication model developed by Watzlawick also promotes the idea that our language-based communication is closely connected with relationships and emotions. He underpins this theory using five basic principles:

  1. One cannot not communicate: Even when we’re not actively wanting to send a message, we are constantly interacting with those around us through our behavior, such as facial expressions and gestures.
  2. Every message has a content and relationship side: The way in which we convey a message varies depends on the person we’re talking to. There is no such thing as communication that isn’t influenced by relationship aspects and merely transmits information alone.
  3. A successful conversation can only come from a balance between action and reaction. That means that you can only communicate with someone if you let them respond. If you constantly interrupt them, you disrupt the communication flow and thus make it impossible to have a good conversation.
  4. Human communication involves both verbal and non-verbal language. Verbal remarks simply transmit information and therefore leave no room for interpretation, while nonverbal language includes gestures, facial expressions, and articulation.
  5. Communication can either be symmetric or complementary. Symmetric means that the people communicating are on equal terms. For example, business partners negotiating a contract will ideally be on the same level and communicate symmetrically. Complementary communication is characterized by the dissimilarities between the two parties. In a talk between a manager and employee, both parties are on a different level due to their position and communicate complementarily.

#5 Avoid misunderstandings using the four-sides model

The four-sides model developed by Friedemann Schulz von Thun (also known as the communication square or four-ears model) distinguishes between four different levels of communication. Every message has four sides and can be interpreted in different ways.

  • Factual level: What is exactly being said? Facts, information, and data are presented.
  • Relationship level: Here, the relationship with the dialogue partner finds expression.
  • Appeal level: A request is made.
  • Self-revelation level: Here, one party gives the other a glimpse behind their facade.

The four levels can be assumed by either the sender or receiver. What’s important is to develop an understanding of which level is dominant when it comes to your customer. If you are confronted with a sentence like “The proposed price is too high for me” during the talk, this might mean one of the following:

  • Factual level: Your customer feels the price is too high for the product and won’t pay it.
  • Relationship level: If the relationship level is dominant, the sentence could mean that the customer simply doesn’t want to do business with you personally.
  • Appeal level: If the sentence is intended as an appeal, the customer is asking you to reduce the price – which you can obviously react to.
  • Self-revelation level: If the statement is of a self-reflective nature, it may mean that the customer doesn’t have the budget available to pay the price you proposed.

#6 Transactional analysis – who is putting words in my mouth?

This communication theory developed by psychiatrist Eric Berne in the 1960s is used to analyze human behavior and get to the root of one’s self-perception. In it, communication behavior is categorized according to three states: the parent ego state, the adult ego state, and the child ego state.

  • Parent ego state: The communication is reminiscent of parenting behavior, for example a corrective, reprimanding, or even caring nature.
  • Child ego state: The conversation tone is spontaneous, playful, or defiant.
  • Adult ego state: The communication is well thought through, rational, objective, and respectful.

In talks with customers, you can pay attention to which of their egos is more noticeable. Ideally, both parties will be in their adult ego state and communicate on equal terms, respectfully, and positively. Conflicts can consequently be defused before it’s too late.

If your customer displays reprimanding or defiant behavior, you can respond appropriately. In the event of misunderstandings, it can also help to ask yourself which state your own remarks stemmed from. A customer who accuses you of “not doing your homework properly” may subconsciously evoke memories of your parents scolding you as a child for not doing your schoolwork. In such scenarios, you need to make sure that these personal experiences do not influence your communication, in other words you must not revert back to your child ego state and react in a stubborn and unprofessional manner. Instead, you should compose yourself and respond rationally to the customer in your adult ego state.

#7 Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) – strategically controlling processes

In this model, various communication techniques are used to “program” people to perform certain actions. The controversial method is mainly applied in therapy but is also used in marketing. Working on the assumption that human behavior is triggered and structured by internal processes, people’s subjective perception is changed (programmed) on an ongoing basis by means of external influences. According to NLP, people use different sensory channels to take in their surroundings, but always favor one or two of them. If you identify these, you can control the outcome of the communication accordingly.

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