My photo
Greater Seattle Area, Washington, United States
You know the saying, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it?” For 26 years I’ve been helping organizations, teams and individuals figure out how to do just that: say IT so that it is effective, genuine, believable and fosters trust and respect. To learn more about how I might work with your group, please check out my website below.
When 7% Doesn’t Add Up

Have you every stayed up all night worrying about what you’d say the next day when faced with delivering a poor employee evaluation, or when you knew you needed to offer "feedback" to someone (ok, criticize their work) or when you wanted to ask for a raise? Well, if you believe the oft-sited statistic that only 7% of meaning comes from words, and the rest comes from nonverbal communication, then you were losing sleep for nothing.

If that 7% is true, then why, oh why, do we wordsmith?  Why do we care what we write? Why, oh why, does an ill-chosen word trigger defensiveness? How, indeed, can words hurt?

7% seems kind of low, doesn’t it? Actually, it is. A 2011 article in Psychology Today, Is Nonverbal Communication a Numbers Game? by Jeff Thompson explains why. The 7% figure was determined during two narrowly focused studies. In 1972, Dr. Albert Mehrabian asked subjects to listen to a recording of a woman saying a single word, such as "maybe" three times, while conveying three different emotions such as dislike, like or neutrality. Subjects were also shown three different photos of a woman’s face showing the same three emotions. People were twice as likely to identify the emotion from the photo, than from the single word. In addition, when subjects simultaneously saw the photo and listened to the recording, if the recording and the photo seemed contradictory, subjects were more likely to believe the facial expression. This suggests that congruence of message IS important. You can check out a thorough explanation of the research in this Ubiquity blog.  

All these years we've seen the 7% “rule” applied to conversation, to conflict management, to giving speeches and what’s been the impact? Perhaps a devaluing of the words we chose? A sense that spending time on word choice was, in fact, a waste of time. That it was OK to “just spit it out” without worrying about HOW we said what we said? Oh, the horror! Dr. Merhrabian didn't draw that conclusion and neither should we.

Is nonverbal communication important? Sure. Does it convey 93% of meaning? Nope. Now we can go back to staying up all night, worrying about the right thing to say. Pleasant dreams.