Are you ever misinterpreted? Do people hear something that you didn’t intend? My guess is that it happens more than you think. The reason is we are always communicating silent messages. In fact, our words usually are a small component of the interpretation of our communication. How you communicate will reinforce or take away from the actually words. It is one of the reasons that memos and emails are less effective in having the message “heard” in the intended way.
Albert Mehrabian (Professor Emeritus of Psychology, UCLA) is known by his research and publications on the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages. His findings on inconsistent messages of feelings and have become known as the 7%-38%-55% rule. According to Mehrabian three elements account differently for our feelings associated with communication. He reports that words account for only7%, while tone of voice accounts for 38%, and body language accounts for 55% of positive or negative feeling heard. The percentages seem overly precise to me but that’s his research. For example, touching, positions ( distance, forward lean or eye contact), postures, gestures as well as facial and vocal expressions, can all out weight words and determine the feelings the received by the message. (Just think about the recent Presidential debate.)
The non-verbal elements are particularly important for communicating feelings and attitude, especially when they are incongruent. If words disagree with the tone of voice and nonverbal behavior, people tend to believe the tonality and nonverbal behavior more than the words. If the facial expression or body language is inconsistent with the words, the feelings convey by the body will dominate and determine the impact of the total communication. If the words are positive but the tone or body language is seen as negative, the message will be experienced as negative.
Of course, what trumps Mehrabian’s 7%-38%-55% rule is the nature of the “story” we have about the communicator. The “story’ forms the filter through which we process what we see and hear. If we hold the messenger in a negative light, we likely will hear his/her message as negative regardless of what is actually said and how it is said.
Pushing the Edge of Your Thinking