Q: I was reading some content on your website and noticed that you mentioned that words make up only about 7% of a conversation. I hope you aren’t devaluing the value of language or words. Are you aware of the “Mehrabian Myth,” an attempt to show how badly Mehrabian’s research was misinterpreted?
A: Mehrabian’s research established two distinct points. First, people form their perceptions of others in a conversation in three distinct ways: visually—55% (non-verbal behavior); vocally—38% (voice tone); and verbally—7% (word usage) which resulted in Mehrabian’s research equation of Total Liking = 7% Verbal liking + 38% Vocal Liking +55% Facial Liking. However, these percentages don’t apply to every conversation nor do they apply to communication in general. For example, the context and the content of a message might determine how a message is delivered to a particular audience. Obviously, there are a number of factors that might influence our perceptions of the person and the meaning of the message they are delivering.
Second, Mehrabian claimed that his research premise applied only when the individual was talking about their “feelings or attitudes toward others.” He indicated that a statement of “feelings” would apply to whether a person “liked” or “disliked” the person who was speaking.
I have often wondered what Mehrabian meant by “attitudes toward others.” One of the definitions of the word attitude is “a mental position toward a fact or state.” This definition of attitude most assuredly encompasses a person’s interpretation, opinion, or judgment about what is being discussed. When we share our ideas or opinions with others, there are surely a number of messages that are being communicated outside the simple use of words.
One idea that Mehrabian does not touch on is the notion that what is going on inside our head influences not only the words we use, but also our tone of voice and the body language we display in our delivery. Because of these factors, individuals deliver their messages verbally, vocally, visually, and mentally.
My interest in Mehrabian’s research stems from the notion that so many of the conversation trainings today focus on the importance of using certain words or a formula or recipe for talking about a difficult topic. As I coach others to help them improve how they talk about tough topics, I am amazed how often people will say something like, “Oh you said that perfectly! Could you say that again so that I can write it down?”
In an attempt to help people communicate more effectively, I have compiled the following list of aspects of conversation that people tend to forget or neglect when they are considering how to talk about a difficult topic.
I am sure there are other aspects that I have missed. Yet notice how many aspects in the list above refer to our thought processes, displayed delivery, vocal emphasis, energy, and emotion.
My intent in framing the “93/7 Rule” was to help people to start to recognize how many aspects of conversation influence the power and effectiveness of our communications. Certainly, words play a major role in the messages we share with others. And yet there are so many other dynamics outside the words that we need to consider and master if we hope to hold REAL Conversations.
Please forgive my oversimplification of a complex topic; some part of me always seems to shout “less is more!” Thanks for your question!
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