Debunking the myths of non-verbal communication

93% of communication is non-verbal. Everybody knows it, right?

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard this in sales training sessions or read about it in books, articles, and blogs. Sometimes statistics are further scored, for example:

“A study at UCLA indicated that up to 93 percent of communication effectiveness is determined by non-verbal cues. Another study indicated that the impact of a performance was determined 7 percent by the words used, 38 percent for the quality of the voice and 55 percent for the non-verbal words. communication “.

Sounds awesome.

The problem is that is not true.

Let’s think about it for a minute: how can you get 93% of the communication without the words? If you watch a movie in a foreign language, look at the body language, and listen to the vocal tones, can you really understand 93% of it? I certainly can’t.

The truth is that the experiments at the origin of this myth (carried out by the researcher Albert Mehrabian in the 70s) focused on some very specific areas of communication, that is, the communication of feelings and attitudes, not communication in general. .

As Mehrabian himself points out:

“Note that this and other equations regarding the relative importance of verbal and non-verbal messages were derived from experiments related to the communication of feelings and attitudes (ie, like-dislike). Unless a communicator is speaking of your feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable. “

Furthermore, the construction of the experiments was not an exact reflection of the real-world communication conditions. In one of the core experiments, for example, individual words (either positive words like “thank you”, neutral words like “maybe”, or negative words like “no”) were read to participants in positive, negative, or neutral voices. In another, the words were combined with photographs of people who appeared positive, negative, or neutral. Participants had to judge whether words were positive, negative, or neutral based on the word / tone or word / image combination, which is where the statistics come from. He highlighted how the tone of voice or facial expression often overrides the meaning of the word when it comes to conveying a positive or negative feeling.

Of course, in the real world, we don’t normally communicate with a single word. And we usually don’t just try to communicate feelings, either. But what has happened is that these important, but limited, findings from the experiments have been taken out of context, repeated, misunderstood, repeated, confused, etc. – to the point where “93% of communication is non-verbal” has been accepted as fact.

So what is the “real” percentage of communication that is non-verbal? Well, let’s pause and think about it for a second.

Really, the question does not make sense.

What does “percentage of communication” really mean? You mean the percentage of the actual message that was heard and understood? Or do you mean the percentage of intentional emotion that happened? The concept of “communication percentage” is so simplified that it no longer makes sense.

Furthermore, there are so many different types of communication that it is impossible to give a single figure or average that has any meaning. Even if you could calculate a “percentage of communication” that was not verbal, it would be so radically different, for example, for a math lecture to a passionate speech on third world poverty, that giving a general figure would be misleading.

In my experience, the only real answer to the question of “how much communication is non-verbal?” it’s “probably more than you think, but less than some coaches and so-called experts would have you believe.”

So what does this mean for sales people?

Well, there is no question that non-verbal communication is important, but don’t take the 93% rule too seriously. The words you use are really vital – they are the core of your communication. Your non-verbals serve primarily to support what you are saying by conveying your feelings: your passion, your empathy, your truthfulness. How do you ensure that your non-verbal words provide adequate support? Well, critically, don’t fake it. Despite what some coaches may try to convince you, it really is almost impossible to try to “apply technique” in your own way through body language. Non-verbal communication is so complex, too complex to try to act or replicate without looking stiff, yet most people are really good at reading it so they will pick up on any falsehoods very quickly. Instead, make sure you really believe what you are saying, and correct non-verbal communication will follow naturally.

And of course, if you’re in a training course or reading an article and you read the phrase “93% of communication is non-verbal,” then think twice about the credibility of the trainer or author. They haven’t done their homework right on this, so what else have they skimped on?

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