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Mehrabian and Tone

Many years ago Albert Mehrabian a Professor at UCLA in the United States created a hotly debated and much criticised piece of work.  He postulated that communication was made up of three key components; words, tone and body language.  He went further and stated that each could be ascribed a percentage of value relative to the total message transmitted; words contributed 7%, tone 38% and body language 55%.  It is useful to reflect on these figures – our personal experience will add validity or not to this argument.

When asked what “makes up” communication the average person will say – words!  And in a sense they are quite correct.  When I ask my workshop participants to pick a percentage relative to the three key components, nearly everyone will say the reverse – words 50%, tone 30% and body language 20%!  So why is this? 

Simply, we are a language dominant species and we naturally think that the spoken word is “communication”.  At a subconscious level we often accept that tone and body language play a part but because words are loud, ever-present and often dominant in their delivery – this is what we focus on.  And this can be to our significant detriment!

How often have we spoken to a loved one and asked how their day was?  To a partner that is “present” the one word reply of “fine” can tell us an enormous amount about their day.  Clearly it is not the word alone – as Mehrabian pointed out – it has a weighting of 7% and a definite meaning in the dictionary.  Yet the word could have a multitude of meanings beyond any dictionary definition – in one case – a fantastic, stimulating and positive day and in another – dreadful, disastrous and painful!

Clearly, more is going on here beyond the actual word.  It is the tone that tells us the real meaning of the day.  And if we are face to face, then body language will add significant power to the one word answer.  The secret to getting the real message is beyond “knowing” our partner.  Many of us have missed the signals and have walked into a minefield of problems.  We all laugh about it – but “ignore the tone” to your peril is a common saying in relationships!

So stating the obvious – tone and body language tell the real story in any piece of communication but why do so many of us not get this right?  We have the habit of thinking communication is only about words and we often lack the primary skills of being able to identify the real message. 

It is not possible for us to pick up tonal shifts if we are not present, aware and alive to what is going on around us.  Presence and being in the moment are key to quality listening.  And when we are present – tone and body language are like flashing neon lights – very hard to miss!

So maybe Mehrabian was onto something?  It’s worth debating…

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