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:

Congruence
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!

Author: Chris Fuller

Used to working in pressurised environments and excel at finding effective, commercially-minded solutions that meet both budgetary and deadline constraints. With strong negotiation and communication skills, I’m able to work effectively at all levels within an organisation, independently and as part of a team. My portfolio of work which shows how I continually achieved my goals in Health & Safety, Procurement, Resource & Strategy Management, Project Management and Relocation Management, to name a few. I am multi-skilled and have an abundance of drive and passion for getting the right job done, by using methodical thinking and organisational skills that I will blend with your organisation’s culture.

Specialties:
* belief in the organisation
* desire to work to make things better
* understanding of business context and the ‘bigger picture’
* respectful of, and helpful to, colleagues
* willingness to ‘go the extra mile’
* keeping up to date with developments in the field

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