Ear we go again – exploring confirmation bias with the ‘four ears’ model

by Disruptive Hiring Disruptive Hiring is the brainchild of the highly
Ever wanted to rewind a conversation and start again? That sinking feeling of wishing you had said or done something differently and got a better outcome than the one you got. Have you found yourself getting frustrated with someone who seems to ‘hear what they want to hear’?

But what someone says to you can tell you more about yourself than you may realise. It’s about how you interpret their words. This is done through a number of domains, and it’s possible to develop a preference, based in part on our life experiences, towards one domain over another. This can result in ‘confirmation bias, where we react to what we expect to hear, due to ‘automatic’ thoughts and beliefs which lie outside of our awareness.  However, problems occur when these biases become deeply entrenched in our personality, therefore become habitual and out of our control.

Communication Scientist Friedemann Schulz von Thun developed the ‘Four Ears’ model aka ‘Four sides’ model, to alert us to the cognitive biases in our communications. The model describes four domains that break down the overt and covert ‘messages’ conveyed by the person who is addressing us. According to the model, we become more finely tuned to one domain, or ‘ear’, over another. That doesn’t mean we are literally ‘deaf’ to the other dimensions, but biases can distort the true meaning of what someone is saying, therefore hindering our understanding. The ‘four ears’ are: –

Self-revelation: Someone with a bias towards this ‘ear’ will be interpreting the mental state of the speaker: maybe this is someone who has power over the listener.

Do your find yourself ‘treading on eggshells with some people? Maybe their mood will have important consequences for you?

Factual information: Someone who responds primarily to factual information may miss the more nuanced aspects of the message, which are often where the true meaning resides.

Do your find yourself ‘missing the point’ of a message, by focussing down on the hard facts; and perhaps you often find yourself facing a blank look from the speaker?

Relationship: Someone with a bias towards ‘relationship’ will be listening out for clues about their relationship with the speaker, perhaps betraying insecurities in the relationship.

Do you ever find yourself reacting out of context to what was actually said? This may betray a tendency to ‘store up’ past resentments, which then tumble forth when your ‘relationship ear’ is triggered.

Appeal: Someone with a bias to the ‘appeal ear’ will interpret the message as a call to action, and will feel pressured to ‘do something in response.

Do you ever find yourself being compelled to act before thinking things through?

Gaining an understanding of our communication biases can help us to avoid past mistakes by discarding old, destructive patterns, easing the way for more accurate and authentic dialogue with others. This is particularly relevant when forming new relationships, and in a professional setting, this has consequences that can affect your progress and stand in the workplace. For example, if you feel you’re getting extra work dumped on you and getting no thanks for it, perhaps you have a bias towards your ‘appeal’ ear. But the same goes in personal relationships, because our confirmation biases become entrenched, potentially affecting all of our interactions with others.

Shultz von Thun’s ‘Four Ears’ theory emphasises that this phenomenon is not solely confined to our sense of hearing. It also applies to our speech which is also transmitted through the same domains listed above. Much of this may be unconscious, but it’s easy to see how a speaker can target a domain. For example, someone who drops hints about what they want for a birthday present is targeting your ‘appeal’ ear, which is a mild manipulation intending no harm. But it’s clear that someone with less benign intentions can transmit their dialogue to suit their purposes, such as using the ‘self-revelation’ domain to convey aggression, without actually using aggressive words, leaving their listener confused and on edge.

Ultimately though, we have no control over what or how another person speaks to us. We can, however, gain insight over our responses by identifying which ‘ear’ we bias, and, importantly what ‘ears’ we disregard. So, the expression ‘hearing what we want to hear’ is not strictly true, as we are not fully in control of our responses. But gaining an insight into our ‘four ears’ can enable us to see if we are being negatively affected by our biases. This awareness can lead to us actively attend to all of our ‘ears’ which will enhance our understanding of both ourselves and others.

At Disruptive Hiring, we are passionate about people. We understand and we listen. We do our level best to support successful candidates radiate success in their new environment. Challenging our own thinking and those around us is one of the ways in which we can mitigate some of the risks associated with confirmation bias in the recruitment process outsourcing. Importantly, it’s a win-win situation. The business wins, the client wins, we win. If you would like to hear more about the Disruptive Executive Hiring then please feel free to reach out to us at


Friedemann Schulz von Thun: Talking to each other: disruptions and clarifications. Psychology of Interpersonal Communication.Rowohlt, Reinbek1981. ISBN 3-499-17489-8

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Created on Mar 22nd 2021 04:08. Viewed 246 times.


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