40-Year Old Communication Myth Busted, Words Not Body Language Are the Foundation of Successful Communication

Whoever spent time as a child on a school playground and been the victim of name calling knows the deflective phrase used to counter those slurs, “sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me,” isn’t enough to overcome the impact of those bullying communications to youthful, developing ears.

The messages young children hear in those early years often become part of their psychological makeup for years to come, and sometimes lead to visits to therapists as adults.

This is just one example of the power of words. Words are powerful, very powerful. Words are much more powerful than an old, worn out, and just plain inaccurate communication model proclaims.

What has become known as the Mehrabian Myth espouses that “words” only amount to 7% of the meaning of a communicated message, leaving tone and body language making up 93% of that message’s meaning.

If you’ve ever done any sales training or leadership communication training since 1972 you’ve probably learned the communication model about which I am writing. It’s the model that shows the three key components of any communication and the respective contribution each proclaims to bring to the meaning of any message:

Verbal (words) = 7%

Vocal (tone) = 38%

Visual (body language) = 55%

If this were to be true I could have attended Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City as I did last November, and understood 93% of the plot and the individual character’s stories without reading the subtitles on the screen in front of me. I couldn’t. Neither could you.

Words are tremendously important.

Yet this communication model, which began in 1967 with two psychological studies reported in the Journal of Consulting Psychology and the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, respectively, and was loosely reinforced in 1971 by research conducted and reported by Professor Albert Mehrabian, Ph.D. of UCLA in two books he published titled Silent Messages and Nonverbal Communications.

These studies are not the culprit of the misguided applied meaning of this research. If the research and related commentary is reviewed one learns that these studies never proclaimed their findings were to be broadly applied to general and regular communication in all situations between human beings.

It seems the more accurate meaning of this research has been usurped and twisted so often, by so many sources; it is impossible to identify the genesis of this skewed meaning. One of the big perpetrators is the NLP industry (Neuro-Linguistic Programming, a philosophy and model for personal and professional transformation effectively used in the coaching and personal development industry), of which I am a member.

I used to teach this 7%-38%-55% communication model, although never truly felt comfortable with it. Amazingly, audiences never challenged me on it and continued to buy it. Even reinforcing the model telling me how important body language is to the meaning of a message.

I’m not arguing that body language and the visual component of a communication is not important. And, based on my personal experience I truly believe that tone may even be more important that body language.

What I’m espousing is that the Mehrabian Myth model places too much importance on body language and tone. What is needed is a model that will more accurately reflect the attention that people on both sides of any communication can feel comfortable applying so there are fewer mis-communications in the world.

In my white paper titled, The 7 Deadliest Sins of Leadership & Workplace Communication, I stress the importance of specific communication. A “Lack of Specificity” is one of those 7 Deadliest Sins. One of keys to specific communication is to be certain our communication is congruent between the verbal, the vocal and the visual components.

Congruency doesn’t necessarily mean equal. Congruency means the appropriate level of each to accurately get the message across. The most important thing to remember in terms of this model is that it really all starts with “words.”

I’d like to propose a new model and a new way to look at this that is totally unscientific but comes from many years of being a human being communicating with these three components daily, and as a business coach and consultant regularly working with business leaders and their teams to improve communication every day.

That new model would look like this:

Verbal (words) = 50%

Vocal (tone) = 30%

Visual (body language) = 20%

This model gives significant and appropriate weight to words because words can inspire, words can motivate, words can de-motivate and words can destroy. It also offers appropriate emphasis to the other two key components.

Anthony Robbins, one of the most well known motivational coaches in the world offers a communication philosophy called “Transformational Vocabulary.” He teaches the power of changing the negative, hurtful words we use in our self-talk into empowering, positive words that will make us, and others, feel better and be motivating. A simple example is shifting the word “problem” to “situation,” “challenge” or even “opportunity.” He teaches this because words matter.

Tone and body language matter, too, just not as much as the Mehrabian Myth has mistakenly promised us for the past four decades.

If you’d like a practical and immediately applicable approach to improving communication in your organization at the highest levels of leadership down to your frontline customer service personnel, go to the HowToImproveOrganizationalCommunication.com website and download the free white paper The 7 Deadliest Sins of Leadership & Workplace Communication.

© 2011 – 2014, Skip Weisman. All rights reserved.

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