There has been a lot of discussion recently about the role of the non-verbal dimension in communication, and especially the accuracy of Albert Mehrabian’s formula.

Unfortunately we live in a world that seems to prefer sound bites rather than complete explanations and we often simplify complex ideas and thereby lose the precise meaning.

At Trischel, we have felt our hair rising on the back of our neck as yet another so-called communication trainer confidently asserts that Mehrabian ‘has proven that only 7% of meaning is derived from what we say and the rest from the way that it is said.”

Like all oversimplification, there is some truth in that – but not much!

Mehrabian’s research was specific and was never intended to apply to communication in general, but only to communication about feelings and attitudes. It is when the spoken words about our feelings and attitudes are at odds with our non verbal component that Mehrabian’s rule of ‘3V’s’ apply.

So understanding that specific application let us take another look at those pesky V’s:

In how we react to the person who is communicating about their feelings and attitudes the ‘V’s indicate:

Verbal – 7 % of our reaction to the message about the speaker’s feelings will be the words that they use.

Vocal – 38% of our response will be from the way that it is said, the paralinguistic part of the message,

Visual – 55% of how we feel about the message will derive from the body language, especially the facial expression; from what we see.

It must be frustrating to have developed an important theory on how communication really works only to find yourself misquoted and taken out of context! Such is the price of fame I suppose. But it is only fair to let Mehrabian speak for himself, which he can do most effectively.

He himself has given the following explanation on his website. In discussing the contents of the Book ‘Silent Messages’ Mehrabian is perfectly clear about when this rule applies

“…Inconsistent communications – the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages: My findings on this topic have received considerable attention in the literature and in the popular media.’Silent Messages’ contains a detailed discussion of my findings on inconsistent messages of feelings and attitudes (and the relative importance of words vs. nonverbal cues) on pages 75 to 80.

Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking

Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable. Also see references 286 and 305 in Silent Messages – these are the original sources of my findings…”    (Albert Mehrabian,  and go to para 5)

Of course I am happy
to clean up my room!

Now that seems perfectly clear. This rehashed formula that we often get repeated like parrots only relates to the expression of feelings and attitudes. It is true, of course, that such a lot of our communication is indeed an expression of our personal attitudes and the way that we are feeling – but we must be perfectly aware that when we quote Mehrabian we do so in the correct situation.

Having got that out of the way – what does it actually mean?

Simply put – if you say to me “I am very happy with your work”; and I listen to just your words, I may be pleased with that remark.

However, if I see that you are looking anxious, and are holding your arms clasped across the body, (Visual message). And if you use a hesitant voice, questioning tone and inappropriate pausing (Vocal message) – then I would unhesitatingly disbelieve what you have just said.

In fact, as Mehrabian has found, when our non-verbal communication; that is how we look and how we behave is different to what we say, then our listeners will be unwilling to believe our words when they relate to our emotions and our attitudes.

Now I hope that we have got that straight now – and if you could see my non-verbal messages you would be firmly convinced of the rightness of my arguments – but as you obviously cannot – you will have to take my words for it!!

Michele @ Trischel

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