The Mehrabian Myth and The Real Secret to Effective Communication, part 2

In the first part of this two-part series, we discussed how the studies of Professor Albert Mehrabian at UCLA in 1967 have been misinterpreted and misquoted by communications trainers ever since. In particular, we talked about the so-called 55/38/7 rule, under which our non-verbals supposedly constitute 55% of our understanding of a message, our tone of voice 38% and our words only 7%.

We then discussed how this 55/38/7 rule doesn’t seem to hold true in many or even most communications, due to the huge impact of three crucial factors on these percentages. We mentioned that the first of these crucial factors is the context of the communication, and that the second is the communicator’s relationship to the other person.

Communication - Head

However, before we reveal what the third factor is, let’s just quickly consider why it is that communication trainers have been misquoting and misrepresenting Mehrabian with such gusto and conviction, for over 47 years. What is it that perhaps they don’t know about the studies, or didn’t feel they wanted to tell you about, that has led to such confusion? Here are five caveats to the studies that should be taken into account:

1] Mehrabian’s 55/38/7 model was created by combining two separate studies of his, which is something that is often viewed as being scientifically unreliable;

2] The studies were specifically conducted where there were feelings or attitudes (in other words, likes or dislikes) being communicated;

3] The studies considered only the communication of single words at a time (and, in one of the studies, tape-recorded words at that);

4] Other types of non-verbal communication such as body posture and gesticulation were not even considered in the studies. Indeed, in the study that used videos of people communicating, the camera was only focused on them from their necks up;

5] One of the studies was exclusively focused on women.

So, apart from these five caveats, the studies were flawless!

But, just to clarify, this isn’t a Mehrabian-bashing article – we think he was (and, in fact, still is) great. And it’s hardly his fault if various communication ‘experts’ continue to earn a very good living while misquoting him left, right and centre. In addition, Mehrabian has been extremely annoyed by all the constant misinterpretations of his work over the years. In this respect, he now has a disclaimer pertaining to these misinterpretations on his website, and he’s given countless interviews stressing his exasperation at how his model has been misapplied. If you want to hear his exasperation for yourself, just Google his BBC Radio 4 interview, which he gave in 2009.

Furthermore, it’s our view that amidst all of the Mehrabian misinformation that has been kicking around for nearly half a century, the real gem from his studies has been overlooked. And that gem is the critical importance of this word:

When we mention congruence in this context, we’re talking about the three elements of our communication matching up with each other. What Mehrabian’s studies actually show is that if we can make our tone match our non-verbals and, in turn, match our words, then people are more likely to perceive the intended meaning of our message from the words we’ve used. This can be contrasted with the situation where there is an incongruence somewhere in the communication – where we, as the audience, don’t feel that the words being used actually match up with the tone or the body language of the person saying them. In this situation of incongruence, the reptilian (and oldest) part of our brain takes over, and we’re more likely to focus on the non-verbals that we’re detecting.

For example, consider the following hypothetical situation. You’re walking home from the train station one night, and you spot a group of guys standing on a street corner. They’re dressed in what is the fashion for some people, namely tracksuits and trainers, and maybe one or two of them are even swigging from a can of something that you can’t quite identify. As you approach them, one of them says to you in a slightly aggressive tone: “Have you got the time?” You then notice that his eyes are firmly fixed on your laptop case, and he’s standing a little closer to you than you might expect, with one of his hands ever so slightly clenched.

What you’re really doing in this situation is sensing a massive incongruence. The guy’s words are harmless enough, in and of themselves. However, it’s his tone and non-verbals, mixed with the context of the situation and your relationship to him, which have put your reptilian brain on high alert. As a result, your reptilian brain will now be frantically whispering to your pre-frontal cortex: “Look, I know this guy says he’s asking for the time, but trust me, he isn’t actually interested in the fact it’s a quarter to ten!”

In other words, you’ve just made a very quick judgment about this guy’s actual motivation and the real meaning of his communication – and you’ve based this judgment on his tone and his non-verbals that you’ve detected, not his words. Essentially, this is incongruence in action: the guy’s tone and non-verbals were not matched up with the words he used, and you were immediately suspicious of him and his intentions as a result.

So, what does all of this mean for you and the way you communicate with others?

Well, do you want people to focus on your words when you communicate? Do you want them to feel that what you’re saying is authentic and genuine? And do you want them to judge or assess your communication based primarily on what you’re actually saying, rather than your tone or your non-verbals? If you do (and of course you do), then you have to be sure that your tone and non-verbal communication are in line with your words, or more specifically, with the message that your words are trying to convey. To put it another way, if you want to persuade and influence, and be understood with clarity and precision when you communicate, then you need to make sure that you’re congruent from head to toe.

In summary, it is congruence, and the way you use and control it, that will help you to become an expert communicator. It is congruence that is the real secret to effective communication. And it’s congruence that we should be focusing on from Mehrabian’s studies, not the much misinterpreted 55/38/7 rule, which has become the Mehrabian myth.

So, the next time somebody misquotes poor old Albert, perhaps you can direct them to the nearest flip chart, using only your hands and some carefully chosen vowel sounds to communicate. After you’ve done that, you can see how long it takes for them to start backing away slowly, before they then make a swift exit!

The Mehrabian Myth and The Real Secret to Effective Communication, part 1

What would you say if we told you that academic studies have proved 93% of human communication to be non-verbal in nature? In other words, what if we told you that only 7% of our understanding of any communication comes from what the other person actually says? Communication BoxInstinctively, you might reply that this statistic is absolute rubbish. And at PCA Law, we would agree with you.

Where did this statistic come from? Well, it comes from now-infamous studies conducted by Professor Albert Mehrabian at UCLA in 1967. Ever since then, communication ‘experts’ have been standing at the front of training rooms all around the world, teaching the Mehrabian communication model as if it was the holy grail itself.

In this two-part series, we’re going to tell you why you’d be right in calling this statistic absolute rubbish – why it is, in fact, the Mehrabian myth. It has been erroneously established as a communication model, and even a rule, after over 47 years (and counting) of remarkable misinterpretation and significant misrepresentation of Mehrabian’s studies. However, we’re also going to show you how we can still learn a great deal from Mehrabian’s studies, and we’ll reveal the real secret to effective communication.

The theory goes something like this. When we communicate, we use three critical tools to deliver the message from person A to person B:

1] Our words  – what we say;

2] Our tone – how we say it; and

3] Our non-verbals – or, in lay terms, everything else, namely body language, gesticulations, eye contact and facial expressions.

Well, so far, so good, and you probably don’t have too many complaints about the analysis at this point.

But now it gets tricky, as according to the Mehrabian myth, we can actually put percentages on these critical tools – and pretty exact ones, at that.

Under the Mehrabian myth, our non-verbals constitute a whopping 55% of our understanding of a message. Next, our tone of voice comes in at an impressive 38%. This leaves our words, the things that we like to believe are going to change the world, down at a pretty insignificant 7%. To repeat, under the Mehrabian myth, our words only make up 7% of how person A understands what person B is trying to communicate.

In countless management training sessions undertaken since Mehrabian’s studies, this 55/38/7 percentage breakdown has been adopted and taught as a rule. This rule supposedly proves that communication is fundamentally not about what you say, but instead is far more about the way that you say it.

Now at this point, you’re likely to be thinking that there is an element of truth to this rule. Intuitively, we know that the way messages are packaged does of course have an impact on how we receive them. However, you may well also be thinking that the so-called 55/38/7 rule just doesn’t seem to add up – certainly not all (or even most) of the time.

And this is because we know that there are two other critical and external factors that massively impact these percentages in day to day life. These factors are firstly the context of the communication, and secondly, your relationship to the other person:

The Context – for example, if you’re looking for a pencil, I might tell you that the pencil is in the desk in the upstairs study, second drawer down, in a small blue box. In this scenario, it’s the words that you’re going to be focused on, in order to understand where the pencil is located. As a result, the percentage for your words in this scenario is going to be a lot higher than 7% – in fact, it’s going to go through the roof.
Your Relationship – you might come home and tell your partner that you’ve got great news about a really big networking opportunity you’ve been offered at work. However, you might then go on to say that this means you’re going have to cancel that trip to Paris you’d been planning together. In this scenario, before your partner even opens his or her mouth, you’ll almost certainly have a good idea of exactly how they’re feeling about your news. This is because you know each other so well, and you’re so in tune with each other, that their non-verbal cues can do the job of a thousand words, and often in a fraction of second. So in this scenario, the percentage for your partner’s non-verbal cues is going to be extremely high.
But the good news is that there is a third critical factor, which you can use and control to have a massive impact on the percentages allocated to the words, tone and non-verbals in understanding a particular communication. Furthermore, when used consciously and skilfully, this factor can help you to communicate with greater precision, and with a greater chance of being understood exactly as you had hoped. And, as luck would have it, it’s also the factor that Mehrabian’s studies actually identified, all those years ago.

In the second and concluding article of this series we’ll reveal what this third factor is, and we’ll discuss how it can be used and controlled, as the real secret to effective communication. We’ll also be mentioning five caveats to Mehrabian’s studies that should be taken into account when considering the 55/38/7 percentage breakdown.

What is Assertiveness?

What is assertiveness? Well, most of us have a sense of what assertiveness means, and most of us probably regard it as being a ‘good thing’. Some people believe that they’re very assertive, and others might feel that being assertive is “just not me.” So, let’s firstly be clear as to what assertiveness actually is, and then we’ll look at how all of us can benefit by using it.

Consider the following. We all have an emotional set of communications, which are based somewhere along a line between aggressive and passive. We can shift between these two points on the line many times a day, depending on how we feel, who we’re talking with and what we’re doing. Given this, where do you think assertiveness might sit on the line?

Well, a lot of people think it sits somewhere near the middle of the line, and perhaps even verging slightly towards the aggressive end. Others think that you can adopt a more passive approach while also being assertive.

At PCA, however, we consider neither of these ways of thinking to be the case. Assertiveness actually sits away from that line – in fact, it’s not on that line at all. It is, however, connected to that line, in what’s known as the Assertiveness Triangle.

PCA Law - Assertiveness Triangle

Now, let’s talk through how we approach actually being assertive. Along the line that runs from passive to aggressive, communication is driven by emotion. In other words, you let your emotions dictate the way that you’re communicating. Often, doing this will give you some instant gratification. For example, if you shout at someone, this might immediately make you feel good. On the other hand, if you just sit back and adopt a more passive approach, you might feel safe, and effectively in your comfort zone.

However, communicating along this line often also takes you to a place full of regret. Once they’ve communicated in this way, people might very well subsequently think: “why did I say this, and why didn’t I say that?”

When we talk about assertiveness, therefore, we want you to pull away from that emotional line, and that world of instant reward. Instead, we want you to think about what your long-term outcomes are. We want you to actively choose how you communicate – your words, tone and non-verbals – based on what you want to achieve. So you need to ask yourself this question: is the way I am communicating aligned with my long-term outcomes?

It’s not about ignoring our emotions or pretending we don’t have them – this is impossible for us to do, as human beings. Instead, we want to consider our emotions, and have our choices informed by them. At the same time, however, we want to avoid our communication being blindly driven by them. If you don’t move away from that line, your communication is very likely to be slanted towards the aggressive or passive end of the spectrum.

Assertive communication is clear, concise and direct.  Here we can reference Eric Berne’s work around Transactional Analysis, which was developed in the 1950s. Specifically, he talked about communicating in an adult state rather than in a parent or child state, the latter of which tends to be driven by emotion. In this respect, think about some of the emotionally fuelled conversations you have had with your children or your parents!

Essentially, we can go one of two ways, when it comes to communicating. Firstly, we can continue to communicate in a habitual and reactive style, which we have developed throughout our lives. Alternatively, we can actually make conscious choices around the way we communicate, which is what PCA refers to as The Communication of Choice.  There is a big difference between these two ways of communicating.

However, we are not saying you should never communicate in an emotional way. Rather, it is about actively choosing that emotional approach IF this will help you to achieve your outcome, rather than just doing it by default.

Another issue, which we notice time and time again when we’re training professionals, is that people often confuse being assertive with being aggressive.  As a result, people are often reluctant to be assertive, for the fear of appearing aggressive.

To be absolutely clear, the two are entirely separate. I’m sure that we all have a sense of what being aggressive looks like – it makes most people feel uncomfortable, and it’s not great for building long-term collaborative relationships.

As we have seen, assertiveness is about choosing an adult state and using clear, concise and direct language.  Where necessary, you can deliver your message in a way that’s extremely direct. However, you can do this while still adopting a collaborative tone and approach. This allows us to be firm on an issue, but at the same time always very collaborative and understanding towards the other person in the conversation. Naturally, this is very different to simply being aggressive.

So, in summary, when we are talking about being assertive, we’re talking about making conscious choices around how you communicate, which are driven by your long-term outcomes.  You’re being clear, concise and direct, and you’re doing so in a collaborative manner.

How to Conduct Critical Conversations:: The PCA PREDICT™ Model: Part 3


The first article in our three-part series discussed how challenging and critical conversations can be enormously damaging to your future relationships if they go wrong. We also introduced our PREDICT™ model as a structured and systematic framework that will enable you to prepare for and then successfully conduct such conversations. The first article in the series can be viewed at this link THE PCA PREDICT™ MODEL: PART 1

In the second article of the series, we summarised and discussed the importance of each of the seven stages of the PCA PREDICT™ model. The second article can be viewed at this link THE PCA PREDICT™ MODEL: PART 2

In this, the third and final article of the series, we’ll be discussing nuance and variation within the PCA PREDICT™ model. We’ll also be following up this series with some blogs that will more fully explore each individual stage of the model.

PCA Predict ModelWithin the PCA PREDICT™ model, we appreciate that there will be nuance and variation, depending on the context you’re applying it to. So it’s important that we reflect this nuance and variation within it, given that a model is only as good as its ability to be applied in practice. In this respect, you’ll notice that there are a couple of extra dimensions that we’ve added.

Firstly, there is a dotted line between Rehearse and Engage. This reflects the fact that often, in reality, these types of challenging and critical conversation may not be something you anticipate or activate. For example, it may be that somebody else starts such a conversation with you, often unannounced, and you’re now having to be immediately reactive. In this case, the process will start below the line, and the very first thing you’ll be able to do is Engage.

Secondly, there are rotation arrows between Deliver and Investigate. These are indicative of the fact that different contexts may require you to Investigate before you Deliver, and vice versa. A serious client complaint for example, may need you to ask a plethora of questions to fully understand their position, before you’re in any position to launch into your message delivery.

And lastly, it’s important to recognise that different applications will require a greater or lesser emphasis on any of these seven stages. At PCA Law, we use this model to help clients navigate through any number of conversation-based challenges. And when we do, we’re clear that their focus will be defined by the demands of the particular context and audience that they’re dealing with.

So, now that you have a top-line understanding of what the PCA PREDICT™ model looks like, please keep an eye out for our future blogs on each of its individual stages. These will help build your confidence to start using this model, in order to transform the way that you conduct all definitive and essential day-to-day conversations.

How to Conduct Critical Conversations:: The PCA PREDICT™ Model: Part 2


In the first article of this three-part series, we discussed how challenging and critical conversations can have a hugely damaging impact on your future relationships if they go wrong. We then outlined the PCA PREDICT™ model as a structured and systematic framework that allows you to prepare for and then successfully conduct such conversations. The first article in the series can be viewed at this link: THE PCA PREDICT™ MODEL: PART 1

In this article, the second of the series, we’ll provide a headline summary explanation of each of the seven stages of the PCA PREDICT™ model. We’ll be discussing nuance and variation within the model in the third and final article of this series. Finally, we’ll follow up this series with some short but more in-depth blogs about each individual stage of the model.

PCA Predict ModelP is for Plan:

Intuitively, we all think we realise that this is often the stage we need to work on the most. Despite this, it’s often the stage that escapes us completely. For this reason, in our blog about Planning, we’ll give you firstly a specific set of questions to answer and secondly focused content for you to prepare, before you enter into any critical conversation.

R is for Rehearse:

This stage may be something that you don’t usually feel is important. However, just as you would hope that a sportsperson or musician would practise before any big performance, it’s vital that you find a way of integrating the rehearsal stage into your pre conversation process. We’ll give you some areas to focus on for this stage of the model, so that it feels more achievable in practice.

E is for Engage:

The first few moments of the conversation could have a definitive impact on what follows. Accordingly, in the Engage blog, we’ll suggest a few key skills that you need to employ fully and ‘switch on’ right from the outset.

D is for Deliver:

Of course, we all think we know what the message is that we’re intending to convey. However, more often than not, this doesn’t quite translate into practice the way we had hoped it would. In the Deliver blog, we’ll give you some clear tools to make sure that the message you intend to deliver is the message that is received.

I is for Investigate:

Questioning and data collection is absolutely vital if we’re going to reach a win:win, mutually beneficial conclusion. However, this is not something that we intuitively do when faced with challenging people or difficult situations. At this stage, we focus on how to make sure you’re both asking the right questions and listening in the right way.

C is for Collaborate:

Ideally, you’re going to find that win:win outcome and get crucial buy-in from the other person, which will help to establish a long-term, mutually profitable relationship with them. However, when you’re looking to achieve all of this, there’s only so far that hitting them with a big stick, or dangling an equally large carrot, can go. In the Collaborate blog, we’ll show you why and how collaboration is your best friend when it comes to critical conversations.

T is for Translate:

There’s no point in carrying out stages 1-6 to perfection, if you then fail to translate any of it into future action. At the final stage of the process, we’ll give you some clear tools that will enable you to turn all of your good work into some tangible results.

How to Conduct Critical Conversations:: The PCA PREDICT™ Model: Part 1


Some conversations are both immensely challenging and critical to your success, either as an individual or as an organisation. With these conversations, you simply can’t afford to just leave to chance whether you achieve your desired outcome from them.

If these challenging and critical conversations go wrong, they can have a hugely damaging impact on your future relationships. This holds true whether these relationships are with your work peers, line managers, team members, clients, friends or even family members.

The challenge of such a conversation might be the nature of the issue you want to discuss. It might also involve the context of the situation, or perhaps even pre-existing difficulties with the person you wish to converse with. Such challenging conversation scenarios could include anlude an executive peer-to-peer appraisal, a behavioural based feedback discussion or a key client conversion conversation. They could even include a discussion of a difficult friendship issue, or a family dispute that needs resolution.

In any event, what you need is a systematic and structured framework that allows you to prepare for and then successfully conduct such conversations. By using this framework, you can be secure in the knowledge that you can stay in control of each stage of the conversation process. You can also make some clear choices about how to drive the conversation towards a successful conclusion that is consistent with the outcome you wanted.

And that’s where PCA’s PREDICT™ model comes in.

PCA Predict ModelBefore we go through each stage of the PCA PREDICT™ model, it’s worth noting that we developed it by drawing on more than 20 years of combined personal communication training experience. This experience involved training senior executives in professional services firms, in FTSE 100 companies and in other leading international corporates. It also involved us working with academics and neuroscientists over the last 4 years.

Essentially, the PCA PREDICT™ model has evolved out of us practising literally thousands of challenging and critical conversations in a huge variety of contexts and applications. Furthermore, these conversations were practised with an extensive range of clients, all of whom needed to find a consistent approach to achieving win:win outcomes for the most difficult of situations.

This is the first article in a three-part series. In the second article of this series, we’ll be providing a headline summary explanation of each of these seven stages of the PCA PREDICT™ model. In the third and final article of the series, we’ll be discussing nuance and variation within the model.

In addition, we’ll be following up this series with a series of separate blogs, where we’ll go into each stage of PCA PREDICT™ in more detail. You’ll then be able to pick and choose which of these stages you’d like to know more about.


PCA Law (the Personal Communications Academy For Lawyers) are the legal sector’s specialist providers of conversation-based experiential training products

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