Mehrabian Communication Model – It Isn’t Just What We’re Saying!

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How the Non-verbal Aspects Can Stop Our Words Being Heard

The Mehrabian Communication Model is probably better known as the 7%-38%-55% model of communication. This formula asserts that when we’re conveying emotions or attitudes face-to-face, our words are only 7% of the communication. Over a third (38%) happens through our tone of voice, and what our voice sounds like. Even more important, over half of what people perceive (55%) is body language.

Critics take issue with people interpreting Mehrabian’s model to mean the words we say aren’t as important as our nonverbal communication. But in reality, people often don’t listen to others’ words properly because their voice and appearance overshadow them. And it’s not just an individual problem. It affects workplace cooperation, productiveness, and ultimately businesses’ bottom line.

Who was Mehrabian?

Professor Albert Mehrabian was a pioneer in analysing human communication. He and his colleagues carried out their research in 1967 at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA.) From there, Mehrabian proposed his equation of the three elements that determine how people react to us when we’re talking face to face. Here it is:

Total Liking = 7% ‘Verbal Liking’ + 38% ‘Vocal Liking’ + 55% ‘Facial etc’ Liking.

Pie chart showing the Mehrabian Communication Model with Albert Mehrabian
How can you use the Mehrabian Communication Model in your communication?

 

Mehrabian Communication Model – A History Lesson

Professor Mehrabian developed his theories based on two experiments. The first study compared the relative importance of the literal meaning of the words spoken with the tone of voice and found the tone of voice was much more influential than the words in getting a response.

The second study dealt with facial expressions seen in black-and-white photographs, and vocal tone as heard in a tape recording. Consequently,  it found the relative contributions of sight and sound were in the ratio of 3:2. In other words, what people saw had 50% more impact on how they felt about a person than their tone of voice. Hence, Mehrabian arrived at the equation 7%: 38%: 55%.

Mehrabian Communication Model showing a hand, mouth and face
Facial expression is vital in the Mehrabian Communication Model

 

Unpacking The Mehrabian Myth

Some people claim that all this misrepresentation has occurred. David Gurteen writes on his website conversational-leadership.net, “Albert Mehrabian never claimed the evidently false assertion that 93% of our conversation is non-verbal. Non-verbal signals play a role in conversation, but they are not more important than words.”

Gurteen argues that words are important, and people should talk deeply and openly, as it leads to better understanding. Of course, that’s the ideal. However, in busy workplaces, often there’s no time to go into things properly. Or people feel they’ve explained something and shouldn’t have to repeat it. The other point is, that people have biases and filters, and don’t give the other person a chance to speak and listen to them. So, actually, this proves the truth in Mehrabian’s model about words being only 7% of the communication. As we’ll see in a moment, the model explains a lot of bad workplace behaviour, not least bullying.

Some More Issues Around Mehrabian‘s Research To Be Aware Of

  1. Mehrabian and colleagues carried out their studies in a laboratory environment. The work was based on people’s judgment of the meaning of a single tape of recorded words. It was an artificial context, quite different from the fluid, fast-moving environment of a workplace.
  2. People also say the figures were misleading because they were obtained by combining results from two different studies combined inappropriately.
  3. The study only related to the communication of positive emotions.
  4. Only facial expressions were included in the study, not other types of nonverbal communication such as body posture.
  5. This last point is probably the most telling. The experiments were carried out over 50 years ago, with a group of female psychology students, no men.
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Okay, this Study Is Dated and Gendered. So, Should We Dismiss It?

No, but we need to see the wider context. First, Mehrabian did his research in 1967, now we’re several generations on and workplace attitudes have changed. As we try to be more inclusive in the West, people alike are challenging the idea of “the boss” having the stereotypical male mindset. Male bosses are becoming more aware of the need to be self-aware, work on being more emotionally intelligent, and accept diversity. At the same time, women are becoming less empathetic as they gain power.

Some things haven’t changed. Women naturally “read” people better than men

Writing on the Psychology Today website, Audrey Nelson Ph.D. says women can “read” people with greater accuracy than men, and are more responsive to nonverbal cues. One likely reason, she suggests, is men may admire covert power and control, and feel less need to be able to “read” the nonverbal environment. In other words, they aren’t too bothered by all the non-verbal communication going on. But as we’ve said, some women in business aren’t concerned about it either, as they adopt male traits to compete.

You could argue that men learn these attitudes from workplace role models. But there’s evidence that it happened earlier. Dr Nelson refers to a study by Harvard University psychologist Robert Rosenthal testing kids from third grade through college, analysing sex differences in decoding nonverbal behaviours. In 77% of cases, women outperformed men in accurately judging messages communicated by facial expressions, body movement, and voice quality. Dr Nelson also says other research studies have confirmed women are superior in interpreting facial expressions cross-culturally. It’s a universal attribute.

More contentiously, Dr Nelson also says it’s recognised that women can undermine their power and credibility in meetings by exhibiting placating nonverbal behaviours and showing deference. In other words, they’re more concerned than men about being liked. Meanwhile, as mentioned just now, as more women come into leadership and management positions, some are adopting traits of toughness. As our thinking about gender develops, the idea of toughness being a ‘masculine’ characteristic is being increasingly challenged. Which brings us to the important topic of biases.

The Mehrabian Communication Model Explains How Our Biases Create Communication Problems

Here’s the thing. Communication in workplaces and wider society goes wrong so often because, in true Mehrabian fashion, people don’t go by the other person’s words (7% of the communication), more by their nonverbal communication, ie their voice (38%) and their appearance (55%.) We, as evolved mammals, have evolved through experience to recognise and respond to threats, so we cannot avoid taking people at face value in interactions. Our voices are a significant part of what people see as ‘us,’ along with how we ‘present’ and our posture and facial expressions.

This Model Also Explains a Lot of Bad Workplace Behaviour. Here Are Some Examples:

Angry yelling employee displaying bad workplace behaviour
Behaviours to avoid in the Mehrabian Communication Model

 

1. Workplace Bullying:

People don’t listen to other people’s words, only their voice and ‘presentation,’ and pick on them for being different.

2. Prejudice:

Leading on from this, in racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other kinds of workplace discrimination, people are judged on their voice and appearance, or, to use another term, their “presentation.” Other examples include judging people on their physical size, age, disability, and such things as tattoos, piercings and different hairstyles. Similarly, people judge individuals who are neurodiverse or have mental conditions or underlying problems. True communication doesn’t happen because they can’t see past these things.

3. Pressure:

When we’re stressed, we’re unlikely to be “in the moment.” The words we say may have no other underlying intention besides getting someone to do something, yet our tone of voice and body language affect what they feel about us and how they respond. And that affects their productivity and engagement in the task, and the work environment overall.

4. Instant Dislike:

People can take an instant dislike to subordinates because they appear and sound pushy. We don’t consider for a moment they may be nervous, anxious to succeed, and lacking confidence. Even if we don’t have time to talk to them properly just then, we should make them feel we’re open to doing so at the right opportunity.

5. Feeling Upset:

If someone is upset for personal reasons, you might not get far with them by being bubbly and enthusiastic about your ideas. They won’t “hear” your words. Best to focus on empathising with them, and return to the topic later.

Now Let’s Focus on Our Voice and What It Says About Us

As we’ve been saying, our words may not be listened to properly because they’re overshadowed by our voice and appearance. Our voice reflects who we are, and is a significant part of what people see as ‘us.’ We’re judged on it. Here’s why:

  • Our voice encodes our gender, sexual orientation, age, education, nationality, ethnicity, and social status.
  • Likewise, our voice conveys our mood, stress level, seriousness, scepticism, impatience, respect, boredom, irritation, anger, degree of openness, confidence, arrogance, timidity, sense of humour and so on.

You also need to be aware of these points:

  • We decode people’s speech automatically and don’t consciously think about it. It’s there in the accent, tone, strength, speed, pauses, and rhythm of their words.
  • This encoding is subtle and hard to describe, and as listeners, we may not always interpret it accurately.

It’s Best to Talk Face to Face and Cut Through All This

Two female employees talking face to face
Back to the basic form of communication

 

All this encoded information is missing when we communicate with the written word. We mentioned David Gurteen and his scepticism about Mehrabian’s Model. Here’s another point he makes. When we communicate by text, email, Whatsapp, LinkedIn message or whatever, these interactions aren’t ‘conversations,’ as far as Gurteen is concerned. For him, text exchanges allow anonymity — you hide who you are, and what you’re feeling. He also says phone calls come close, and video calls such as Skype, Facetime and Zoom come closest but still fall short of real conversations.

Face-to-face conversations are increasingly rare in business. In the world of work, things often go wrong because complexity gets the better of us and communication goes awry. Interactions get shorter, and we need to put things right. If you manage to speak properly to someone on the phone, you can’t look them in the eye, but you can still open up. This goes with the idea of vulnerability. We can deal better with difficult situations by taking ownership of the way we interact with other people. In other words, remember about Total Liking = 7% ‘Verbal Liking’ + 38% ‘Vocal Liking’ + 55% ‘Facial etc’ Liking. Talk openly and honestly, and remember the nonverbal aspects, and hopefully, you can sort everything out.

Here Are Some Takeaways from the Mehrabian Communication Model

To use Mehrabian’s Model to the full, we need to remember these key points:

  • Our ability to read non-verbal communication varies at different times. Being able to read body language and tone of voice goes hand in hand with using our emotional intelligence and being ‘present.’ When we’re upset, stressed or under pressure, we get distracted and don’t do so well.
  • It can be hard to read the body language and tone of voice of people from different cultures.
  • People who feel in some way different may be extra vigilant about other people’s non-verbal communication and see it as threatening.
  • Neurodiverse people may have difficulty reading people’s emotions and intentions.

Keep It Congruent

When our verbal and nonverbal messages enhance each other and say similar things, for example, we say “I like you,” or “this is a great piece of work,” in a warm tone with smiling eyes, the communication is congruent. It reinforces what we’re saying. We can do a lot to defuse an awkward situation by choosing our words carefully, keeping our tone of voice sympathetic, and keeping our body language non-threatening.

Here’s another way to remember this:

The 4 V’s of Communication:

Here are the first three ‘V’s:

  • Verbal
  • Vocal
  • Visual

If you’re feeling tense, a fourth ‘V’ may come into effect:

  • Vigilance

For all our civilisation, we can’t help reacting to threats, and in a charged atmosphere like the workplace, people’s tone of voice and posture can be triggering. You need to be careful you’re not making people feel tense, uncomfortable, or worse, hypervigilant. There’s more about what can happen when people get triggered at work in our article on the Window of Tolerance.

Don’t Just Shoot, Ask Question

Girl thinking and asking questions about Mehrabian Communication Model
Keep curious

 

That’s the lesson from Jeff Thompson Ph.D., a psychiatric researcher and former NYPD detective and hostage negotiator. Writing on psychologytoday.com, Thompson talks about increasing your accuracy in understanding all this by applying the 3 C’s of Nonverbal Communication:

  • Context
  • Congruence
  • Clusters

‘Context’ includes the environment the situation is happening in, the history between the people, and other factors such as each person’s role, for example, an interaction between a boss and an employee.

We’ve talked about congruence at length, regarding Mehrabian’s formula. Do the person’s spoken words match the tone and body language? After someone trips up and then says they’re fine, but they’re grimacing and their voice is shaky, you might want to probe a little deeper.

Finally, looking for ‘clusters’ of nonverbal communication stops us from taking a single gesture or movement as definitive in determining someone’s state of mind or emotion. Sure, crossing your arms over your chest can be a sign of being resistant and close-minded. But if the person raises their shoulders and chatters their teeth, they might just be cold!

Finally, the Mehrabian Communication Model is About Cocreation

As workplaces become more diverse, leaders and managers need to be aware of all this, and show compassion. This includes making other colleagues aware, and where appropriate, factoring it into training.

Making Business Matter’s Equality, Diversity & Inclusivity Coaching Cards might come in helpful here. There’s plenty of background reading you can do on this, with PDFs, books and online references. But in the end, it’s about common sense, taking a moment, and thinking what’s stopping you from hearing the other person’s words properly and achieving co-creation.

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Communication and InfluencingCommunication Skills TipsDiversity and Inclusion

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