The four great relational distances

Article translated by dott. Marco Recalenda, CIELS Advanced Degree in Strategic Communication (“Laurea Magistrale in Comunicazione Strategica”), extracted with the author’s permission from the book “Let’s be clear” (original title: “Parliamoci chiaro”), written by Daniele Trevisani, published by Franco Angeli, Milan.

1.1.             The four great relational distances

Distance between people is a physical fact, but physicality is nothing compared to psychological distance. The Four Distances Model examines the main factors that create relational distance, grouping them into four large classes, which are useful for any purpose, both in building relationships but also in identifying existing incommunicability.

These large classes are:

1. distances and differences in roles and identities between communicators, including differences in personality or state of mind;

2. distances and differences in communication codes and styles;

3. distances and differences in values, attitudes and beliefs held;

4. distances and differences in various types of personal experience, both physical and emotional.

Just one of these variables is enough to create incommunicability. The combination of these is even more difficult to manage, because it can create strong relational distance.

Relational distance is a real fact. We can be very close to a person (e.g. in a lift, or at a traffic light) and be completely disinterested in that person’s life, and he/she in ours. That person will be “distant” to us.

Everyone will go their own way, everyone in their own life.

It also happens in the streets. We pass by a person on a pavement while walking, or in a lift. A fleeting flash of physical closeness, but no real relational glue, rather the frost. Often not even a glance.

You may live in a building with dozens of families and not have gone beyond ‘good morning’ with some of them, and with some not even that. In other situations, there are people with whom you feel you can tell them everything about yourself, or you make yourself totally available for a deep, true, interested listening.

At what distance are we then with the people we care about? And at what relational distance are we with the people we have to work with or want to work with, be it for years or for a single project lasting a few hours?

Even when a project is single and limited in time, the phenomenon of team communication inevitably arises. In this team there will be diversity, there will be people who have to work side by side, people from different professional backgrounds, different cultures, different ideologies, communication codes that are only partly shared, and the risk of failure and conflict – if not anticipated – becomes very high.

Relational friction is a fact, even in engaged couples, married couples, friends, colleagues, and between children and parents, and it increases as the distance increases. It is this friction which, taken to the nth degree, has generated disasters, struggles, wars and devastation throughout history.

If recognised early, however, it can be managed, and human relationships can take a completely different turn, moving towards Constructive Communication, which develops projects, ideas and value. They can also generate Positive Communication, relationally nurturing, warm, welcoming, emotionally clean and enriching. And at the same time, under these conditions, listening becomes a pleasure, not an almost impossible task.

Sometimes we experience relationships that are only apparently ones of psychological closeness, but which in reality demonstrate all their falseness as soon as a critical incident brings to light the real sidereal distance of values in human relationships.

This distance may be largely unconscious: we may believe we are close and yet be very far away. A false indicator of closeness is, for example, confidence, the elimination of the ‘courtesy form’ or other kinds of linguistic distancing.

We all know, however, how one can converse amiably with someone who seems to be a friend and in reality is not.

Even marriages and friendships experience moments of apparent distance or apparent remoteness, people “approach” and “move away” relationally, like comets, in trajectories that are sometimes very predictable, sometimes people appear in our lives like bright meteors in the sky and then disappear.

So let us make it clear that distance is not just a matter of appearance but something deeper.

Relational distance exists, it creates incommunicability and, with it taking place, no project can really go the distance.

Principle 1 – The elements that affect effective communication and incommunicability

Communication becomes difficult when:

1. people do not accept each other’s roles in communication, there is a lack of acceptance in the mutual identities that people want to assume, parties do not recognise and legitimise each other as accepted counterparts;

2. distances in communication codes and styles are wide, making it technically difficult or impossible to understand the meanings of the communication itself. Languages are poorly understood, there are unfamiliar terms, and meanings are not shared;

3. there are value divergences, attitudes and values, both superficial and in depth, and the degree of difference (how much difference) is amplified the more the communication touches on the core values of one or more communicators, to the point where the other’s position is perceived as inconceivable and contrary to one’s own values;

4. the parties are characterised by different types of personal experience, both physical and emotional, with increasing incommunicability as this diversity increases, and do not have common physical or emotional experiences that could act as facilitators.

Communication becomes positive and effective the more

1. people accept each other’s roles in communication, acceptance is created in the mutual identities people give each other (“I accept your role as you present it to me”), the parties recognise and legitimise each other as worthy of a fruitful relationship;

2. distances in communication codes and styles are reduced or are progressively reduced, making it technically easier to understand meanings, based on shared signs, comprehensible languages, and shared meanings;

3. there are few differences in values, or these are only superficial, while deep values are shared.

4. parties are characterised by a certain degree of ‘Common Ground’ in personal experience, both physical and emotional, and this increases through shared experiences, making communication more positive and effective.

It is quite understandable and natural that as the psychological distance between people increases, incommunicability increases, but becoming aware of this is not enough.

It is necessary to understand where to work on incommunicability. So what variables should be used? How can the real distance that exists at a certain moment be understood? How can it be reduced?

In what areas is it important to work on the Four Distances? This theme deserves to be explored in greater depth.

Article translated by dott. Marco Recalenda, CIELS Advanced Degree in Strategic Communication (“Laurea Magistrale in Comunicazione Strategica”), extracted with the author’s permission from the book “Let’s be clear” (original title: “Parliamoci chiaro”), written by Daniele Trevisani, published by Franco Angeli, Milan.

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