Qualities of Communication Failures in Hierarchical Relationships: A Theoretical Model for Conflict Prevention

  • Maike BaumannEmail author


Many social relationships people engage in are hierarchically structured, such as boss–employee, doctor/therapist–patient or teacher–pupil. Reasons to assign a leading role to one party in an interpersonal relationship can include advanced knowledge or expertise, seniority, agreement and ownership or control of resources. Differences in hierarchical status lead to particular expectations of and specific responsibilities assigned to the involved parties. The expectations include qualities of interaction, responsibilities, the other’s value system and, consequently, the other’s behaviour as well as assumptions concerning the other party’s expectations (i.e. expectations of second and third order). During communication the different agents often assume divergent appraisals and expectations as obvious and do not share these presuppositions explicitly. In addition, cognitive biases can be expected to systematically influence the social behaviour of all parties involved without the interacting people being fully aware of them. As a consequence, communication failures and different qualities of conflict can be expected to (re)occur frequently in hierarchical social relationships. In this chapter a model of communication failures in hierarchical relationships within Western cultures is proposed. This model can be useful for teaching purposes to prevent conflict in, for instance, medical or educational contexts. In addition, the proposed model helps in analysing existing conflict dynamics and repeatedly occurring conflicts with the goal of enabling the development of understanding and a change of behaviour. The model uses insights from a systemic approach on human communication, research on cognitive biases as well as motivational psychology and research on the interrelation of emotions, stress and coping behaviour.


Mistakes Errors Failure Communication failures Cognitive biases Hierarchical relationships Expectations Attribution theory 


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institut für Lebensgestaltung-Ethik-ReligionskundeUniversity of PotsdamPotsdamGermany

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