Body Language

Posted by Doc
Nov 08 2010

Have you ever heard or read this?

  • 7% of meaning is in the words that are spoken.
  • 38% of meaning is paralinguistic (the way that the words are said).
  • 55% of meaning is in facial expression.

Or maybe some variation? Maybe you’ve even repeated it, telling others that 93% of all communication is non-verbal.

First, let’s put this in its proper context. This misinformation is based on research done by Professor Albert Mehrabian in the last twenty years. Here’s an excellent clarification on BusinessBalls.com.

Here is the key part:

  • 7% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in the words that are spoken.
  • 38% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is paralinguistic (the way that the words are said).
  • 55% of message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in facial expression.

Note the inclusion of “pertaining to feelings and attitudes” in each of these. Simplified, this says “93% of all communication about feelings and attitudes is non-verbal.”

Also, please note that body language is not included at all!

Here’s a further clarification from Mehrabian himself, from that article on BusinessBalls.com:

Mehrabian did not intend the statistic to be used or applied freely to all communications and meaning.

Mehrabian provides this useful explanatory note (from his own website www.kaaj.com/psych, retrieved 29 May 2009):

“…Inconsistent communications – the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages: My findings on this topic have received considerable attention in the literature and in the popular media. ‘Silent Messages’ [Mehrabian's key book] contains a detailed discussion of my findings on inconsistent messages of feelings and attitudes (and the relative importance of words vs. nonverbal cues) on pages 75 to 80.

Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking

Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable. Also see references 286 and 305 in Silent Messages – these are the original sources of my findings…”

(Albert Mehrabian, source www.kaaj.com/psych, retrieved 29 May 2009)

This clarification, that this research was specifically and only about communications about feelings or attitudes, kills a common misconception. It’s not that 93% of all communication is non-verbal, or even that 93% of communications is about feelings and attitudes. Rather, this was a very focused study that addressed communication about feelings and attitudes.

This doesn’t rule out the importance of non-verbal communication, either in voice, presentation, facial expression, or body language. It just eliminates the so-called authoritative reference.

All of that academic-y stuff being out of the way now, we all know that there are also loads of research about body language. And we also know, and research supports, that a significant amount of communication is conducted non-verbally. As such, I think it’s important that each of us who has interaction with others (hmm – that would be pretty much all of us), and particularly those of us for whom interaction is our professional focus, should have some knowledge of body language and facial expression.

Whether you do presentations or training, coaching or leading, understanding what’s being communicated in ways other than in words is a critical skill. When I’m doing training or delivering a talk, one of the constants is that I’m looking at each member of my audience/class/group. At least those I can see: sometimes a group is so large that you can’t really see everyone. As I’m looking at each of them, not only am I making eye contact (a separate topic), but I’m also examining their facial expressions and body language.

  • Are they looking bored? Hostile?
  • Are they looking confused?
  • Are they looking like they have something to say?
  • Are they looking away? Or working on their computer/phone/iPad/whatever?

Each of these is a cue to me that something is going on. Note that in none of these cases is there any verbal communication. So the non-verbal communication, intended or otherwise, is actually 100% of the communication. And I can use that communication, assuming that I recognize it and understand it, to guide my actions and words.

For instance, if I look around and I see a number of people looking sleepy (usually after lunch ;) ), I may choose to stop what I’m saying and doing, and have the group do an activity.

If I see people looking confused, I may ask if there are questions, or take a few moments to explain a challenging topic in simpler terms.

Regardless of the specific cues, what’s important is knowing that they exist and how to understand them, so that I can use them to inform my choices and be more effective at my communication.

And, lest I leave out an important part, it’s equally important for me to be aware of my own non-verbal communications. But that’s a topic for another day.

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3 Responses

  1. Sudhir Mongia says:

    very well said.. cleared the miscommunication related to communication.

  2. [...] Take the audience’s temperature. Constantly monitor for alertness, interest, fatigue, distraction, and so on. Check their body language, facial expressions, and movement. [...]

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