“Nothing! Absolutely nothing!” she says between gritted teeth as she slams cabinet doors in our kitchen.
I have a choice to make at this point. I can believe what she says (that nothing is wrong) and go about my business, or I can believe what her tone of voice and body language are telling me (that something is most definitely wrong). I’ve taken a few lumps in our marriage, and I’ve learned to disregard what she says if it doesn’t match how she says it. Saying, “Okay, Sweetheart. I’ll be in the garage if you need me,” only gets me in a deeper stew.
Professor Albert Mehrabian (UCLA) has done research that would have been useful to me a little earlier in our marriage. He analyzed where our messages come from when we communicate, and his findings are surprising.
- 55% of our message comes from nonverbals, or Visuals, (i.e. our body language, gestures, facial expressions, posture…).
- 38% of our message comes from our tone of voice, sounds we make, our rate of speech…, or Vocals.
- 7% of our message comes from the words we use, or Verbals.
Only 7%! Seems unbelievable, but I’ll tell you why I believe it…because we lie. We are expert liars. My wife was lying when she said nothing was wrong, even though she really wanted me to know that something was. We lie all the time to avoid facing unpleasant circumstances directly. Our boss brings us a huge project Friday afternoon and asks if we have time for it. “Oh, sure. I’ll fit it in,” we sigh, knowing that our plans for the weekend have gone out the window. We’re told that team meetings will now be breakfast meetings and start at 6:30 a.m. “Hey, there’s a great idea!” we tell a peer sarcastically. A friend asks us what we thought of his presentation. “It was terrific,” we lie, because we don’t want to hurt his feelings.
We’ve learned from experience that you can’t always trust what people say. However, Visuals and Vocals are much more reliable. People send signals through their body language, tone of voice and other nonverbals. Sometimes they do it intentionally (my wife, for example), and sometimes they just can’t help it. We bring the team together and tell them about a new change that means doing more with less. As the leader, you know you have to put a positive spin on it, but your fake smile and monotone voice quality give you away. People put your words on a shelf and judge your sincerity by your nonverbal communication.
Often, we are telling the truth, but people misread our nonverbals. We ask a simple and sincere question, but our arms are crossed at the time, and the other person goes away with the idea that we are totally against her proposal. We were up late the night before, and some of our team members perceive that we are in bad mood because we didn’t sound cheerful when we greeted them. We are fast talkers, and we find that slower talkers distrust our message because we seem “slick.”
The key is matching your verbals and your nonverbals. If we want our message to hit home, Verbals, Visuals and Vocals all have to be marching in the same direction. It may take practice in front of a mirror or with a tape recorder, but you can improve how you communicate by increasing the consistency of these three components.
On the flip side, don’t allow yourself to accept what someone says as the whole story. Watch and listen to their nonverbals to determine if they match the message. If they don’t, respond to the nonverbals rather than the verbals. Back to my example with my wife…a better response to her would have been, “You seem upset. Would you like to talk?” Notice that I’m disregarding the words she used and focusing on the underlying message. You may need to make several attempts at this before the other person is willing to be honest Verbally, but their nonverbals have been telling the truth all along.