Communication, Trust & Debunking The Myth

(Originally posted winter 2011)

have you ever heard that...
Communication is
  • 7% words
  • 38% tone of voice and
  • 55% body language?

This rule, derived from an experiment by Mehrabian, is frequently cited by communications trainers.
Thankfully it’s being corrected in some training circles (see Training Professionals - thank you Alec McPhedran). 
If we think about this idea critically, we gain little 'factual or theoretical information' from body language and tone - it's the emotional content of the communication that gets conveyed this way.
Imagine if this rule were true; books and legal documents would be have 97% of their meaning missing, cookery instructions would be given in sign language, maps and diagrams (the language of graphic symbols) would be completely useless – and so would Sat Nav.

So why has this wrong idea become so popular?
As humans, we often want to know the emotional disposition of the person we are dealing with:
  • Are they happy or scared
  • nervous or aggressive?
  • Can we trust them?
  • Can we trust the information they are giving us?
We want to know how people feel. We want to know how thy feel about what they say. We want to know how we should feel about them and what they say...
  • Are they safe or a threat?
  • Are they helping us or betraying us?
  • Is this good news or bad?
  • Should we be glad... or very afraid?

So, whilst Mehrabian’s experiment is inaccurately reported and rarely qualified, it still highlights an idea of great value:
A core need as a human being is to establish trust in our dealings with other people.
Without trust, all relationships, teamwork and long-term plans fall apart.

Photo by Eric Munn Photography via Flickr.

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