Tuesday, 1 March 2011

What the 7/38/55 communication rule really means

I have read many books and articles on communication and how it works and in many of them they quote the work by Albert Mehrabian and the 7/38/55 rule on communication. A lot of them state that in ALL communication these figures mean

7% of our communication is the words we use
38% of our communication is the tone we use
55% of our communication is in the non verbal (physiology)

NO THAT IS NOT WHAT THEY MEAN – sorry for shouting but in the words of Peter Griffin (Family Guy) this ‘really grinds my gears’. The research by Mehrabian was around how we communicate feelings and attitudes only.

It is emphatically not the case that non-verbal elements in all senses convey the bulk of the message. So what do the figures mean….

An example of when we are communicating feelings and attitudes could be

• Verbal: "I'm Ok with that"
• Non-verbal: person avoids eye-contact, looks anxious, has turned away slightly, etc.

It becomes more likely that the receiver will trust the predominant form of communication, which to Mehrabian's findings is non-verbal (38% + 55%), rather than the literal meaning of the words (7%).

An example of when the words are 100% of the message

• You are at work when the fire officer comes into the room and shouts "Everyone evacuate the building because there is a fire," I would suggest the meaning of the words carries 100% of the message i.e., 1) there is a fire, and 2) get out of here. You are very unlikely to be worrying about the tone of voice and physiology of the person issuing the instructions and are more likely to grab your stuff (despite being told on numerous occasions not to) and get out. You'd get the message fully through the words without having to be an expert in body language to unravel the meaning.

The value of understanding the 7/38/55 rule relates to communications where emotional content is significant, and the need to understand it properly is great.

OK rant over!! What are your thoughts?