The Tower of Babel & the Body Language Myth (55%-38%-7%)

Following on from my post about the 55% – 38% – 7% body language myth, it strikes me that if the myth was true – that words only account for 7% of any communication – why both learning different languages? It’s true that many people travel to far off lands and instead of learning the lingo, just speak more  slowly, more loudly, add an ‘O’ at the end of words, and gesticulate furiously. However, does this mean any bewildered local person gets 93% of the meaning? Of course not! Instead they can be 93% sure that the traveller was too damn lazy to buy a phrase book!

Now, imagine going to a lecture in a foreign language. Would you be able to discern 93% of the technical information from the speaker’s tone of voice and hand gestures? Afterwards, perhaps you could rent a foreign language DVD and switch off the subtitles and enjoy all the subtleties of the story.  And why aren’t mime artists the most highly paid people in the world? After all, they must be the best communicators. Why didn’t President Obama give his inaugural ‘speech’ through the medium of dance?

In each of these scenarios it’s obvious that the words account for much more that the often reported 7% of  communication. For if words are so unimportant, then we do we both to continue to use them? Why don’t we just grunt and point?  And how do ‘body language experts’ communicate the relative importance of words to body language? Do they ‘moon walk’ or communicate through the parlour game of charades? Goodness know they should for the sense they make, but no: they use words! And, it’s clear that what is at fault is the inability of some so-called ‘body language experts’ to put the proper value on words and actually read the bloody research they cite! Perhaps they were paying too much attention to the rustle of the pages or the book cover instead of giving due prominence to the printed word.

When we actually read the research by Albert Mehrabian that gave us he 55-38-7% rule we learn that body language and tone of voice have prominence over words only when we are forming an attitude about another person, that is, deciding whether or not we like them. It’s that specific. It’s certainly no antidote to the ‘Tower of Babel’ language divide.

Although, the statistics are often quoted out of context to falsely inflate the importance of body language in everyday communication, the research has important implications for first impressions. When plucking up courage to speak to someone it’s important to know that people pay less attention to what we say but more to the general impression we make. So, we don’t have to say something super-intelligent or offer a witty one liner or a cheesy chat up line. In the initial stages, it’s a smile that makes all the difference. Once you’ve ‘broken the ice’, words become more important. Even more important is that we learn to listen to them.

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Communication Tips in Relationships

All too often it’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing communication skills as a bunch and tips, tools and techniques for getting our own personal message across. Well in part that is true, but it’s only half of the story.

Essentially communication is about an exchange of perspectives; a coming together of differing personal views of the world. It’s not just about talking; it’s about listening too. Listening may be thought of as a passive process, just nodding, smiling and hmm-ing until it’s our turn to ‘communicate’. However, the way you listen will determine whether anyone will want to talk to you. And when we speak it’s often it’s not what we say but how we say it that determines whether or not other people will hear us. The way we present our messages will increase the chances that someone will actually listen to us.
We often hear a lot about how it’s good to talk in relationships but when it’s time to talk about problems in relationships, a common error is to lump all your petty niggles and resentments into one big formless heap and then dump that on to a friend, partner or loved one. The reason for this is simple. All too often we are encouraged to engage in battlefield communications – the battle of the sexes – where the winner takes it all! There is an art to communication and the first thing to decide is what your message is; what do you want to get across. Different types of communication like books, plays, films and so on all do through an editing process in the hope that they will be received in the best possible light. If both partners ‘edit’ their message and stick to the most important issues, then it will also, most likely, be easier to listen to.

My recommendations for clear communication tend to work well when used together, and of course you need to be flexible and adapt them to your own particular needs and the needs of the other person, and the relationship. A number of these suggestions are taken from my book Sex, Lies & Stereotypes.

Here they are:

Think partnership
If your relationship is a partnership then you should aim for a win-win situation. It should not be a zero-sum game, so that one partner benefits at the expense of the other. It is important that you really make an effort to see things for each other’s perspective. Be creative in solutions. Think ‘outside of the box’. If you both win, the relationship wins doubly so.

Pick the right moment
Don’t be tempted to dive in, no matter the time or place. Agree on a time and place to discuss important matters when you are not likely to be disturbed or distracted. Again, think partnership. It needs to be a time and place that works for both of you, relatively free from stress and private. You both need to feel safe to disclose your intimate thoughts. So, don’t pick the moment your partner wants to watch his/her favourite programme, or when you are on the dance floor at a nightclub, or in the frozen food aisle of the supermarket.

Own your statements
When dealing with negative or difficult issues you need to own your statements. There is a big difference between ‘I feel as if’ and ‘you make me feel’. If you introduce a sense of blame, the whole discussion becomes a game of ‘emotional poker’ with I’ll raise your ‘hurt feelings’, and see you a ‘really make me sick’. It’s not meant to be a competition.

The behaviour is not the person
It is far easier for a person to change their behaviour than to change their whole self. Once you’ve said ‘You really make me sick’, there isn’t really anything else left to say, is there? If on the receiving end, you might want to say ‘In what specific ways do I make you sick?’ Prompt for examples, ask for evidence. However, if the person says ‘I don’t like it when you. . .’ or say how you feel when a particular behaviour occurs. This way you cut to the chase and immediately start talking about the important stuff. Of course, it doesn’t have to be something negative. Instead of saying ‘You are useless at foreplay’, you could say what you do like, for instance ‘I like it when you do x, y and z. (Hmmm! Can’t beat a bit of x,y & z). Say how good you feel. Psychologically, people respond much better to positive reinforcement, such as praise, than they do to negative feedback such as ‘put downs’. Even ‘I really appreciate it when you get up to put the cat out’!

Observations not judgements
Don’t make sweeping generalised judgements about what things do or don’t mean. Don’t start sentences with ‘If you loved me’ or ‘If you cared’. These are not facts. They are your perceptions. Consider this statement ‘You don’t care whether or not I get any sexual satisfaction, you just think about yourself’. All wrapped up in one statement is ‘caring’, ‘selfishness’, and ‘sexual satisfaction’. You may end up arguing about caring and selfishness when you really should be discussing sexual satisfaction. Make factual observations not value judgements.

Give specific feedback based on observations
Words like ‘always’, ‘sometimes’, ‘often’ and ‘never’ are all rather vague and leave things wide open for disagreement. Again, it is all about different perspectives. You need to put things into context and be more specific. It then becomes easier to get side tracked by arguing over the terms and frequencies rather than discussing the real issues.

Share ideas or offer alternatives, rather than make demands or give advice.
Most people respond better if they have a sense on input or investment in a course of action. Nobody likes being told what to do. It’s all about perspectives again. Discussing options should be the first step in any ‘negotiation’. This communicates the idea that you value the other person’s point of view. Psychologically, there will be a greater sense of ownership of an idea for both people if they have both contributed to it.

Too much, Too Soon. Don’t go for feedback overload
When material has a high emotional content, it often takes us a little longer to process. So if a partner discloses something, you may say the first thing that comes into your head, or use it as a signal to open up the floodgates, releasing a torrent of emotion. However sometimes it requires a little time to ‘digest’ what you’ve just heard. Sometimes it is important to go away and process the thoughts before ‘thinking out loud’. You are less likely to say something that you hadn’t fully thought through (and may regret later). It is okay to take ‘time out’ and agree to come back to it. If you get into the habit of good communications, then there isn’t that imperative to have to deal with everything in one go.

In summary
Overall, people who discuss things (even argue) in a similar style are more likely to resolve their differences. Using some or all of these tips helps to make sure that the right message gets through. It is really about learning how to focus the message and not getting side-tracked by our personal perceptions. Essentially, it is about making your ‘signal’ easier for the other person to process by getting rid of ‘the interference’.
What I’ve also found from reviewing the research is that people in relationships considered more intimate usually have a number of things in common:

  • – they tend to share equally private thoughts and feelings, especially private ones, and are more likely to say ‘I love you’, or pay their partners a compliment.
  • – they less likely to ‘point score’ and more likely to seek win-win solutions to any problems.
  • – they also tend to take a direct approach and talk rather than expect their partners to be mind-readers, and when in conflict they tend to look for a swift solution rather than ‘prolong the agony’ (i.e. sulking).

In short, relationships that are more intimate tend to be partnerships-based. Overall these pointers represent an ideal way to communicate, and as we know, sometimes we are not always presented with ideal conditions. So don’t worry if you don’t put all of these things into action every time. Do what you can at the time with the intention of maintaining a partnership perspective.