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.

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