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The Truth About Non-Verbal Communication


The Truth About Non-Verbal Communication

Some people still quote the statistic that says 93% of communication is nonverbal.

This number is pulled from a 1967 study by Albert Mehrabian and it’s widely misunderstood. I’ve seen this data used as evidence that you need to hire an image consultant, or even a website design company, because they claim they can help you communicate non-verbally.

What the data actually refers to is an experiment in which people were asked a series of questions. They were only allowed to respond by using the word’ “maybe”. The participants were asked afterwards what factors helped them to understand the person’s true feeling — body language, voice tone or words. Given the restriction on the person’s words, there was of course a huge lean towards non-verbal communication to understand how the person felt.

So what can we learn from this study? It’s important to remember that when you are communicating facts words are very useful. Imagine explaining your address by doing charades. Not so easy is it? In this situation you are not able to communicate 93% of the information non-verbally.

There are two places where the non-verbal side becomes more important than words:

  • Communication of emotion
  • When your words and non-verbal behaviour appear in conflict, we trust the body language and tone more than the words


When a word and the tone it’s said with don’t match, then we listen to the tone more.

Mehrabian discussed this on BBC Radio in 2010 when he explained some of the misunderstandings in his famous study.

Essentially the study showed that if you hear a person saying a neutral word like “maybe,” you’ll listen for a differing tone to determine what the person is really saying. If they say it with a positive tone, you think they may actually mean “yes.” Same if they say it with a negative tone.

Children know this instinctively. If their parents says, “maybe later,” the children will judge the voice tone to understand if the parent is really saying “no”, or saying, “ask again later.”


For example, if someone’s speaking a foreign language that you don’t also speak, you can often at least gain a sense of how they feel, even if you can’t understand the complex ideas they’re expressing.

I learned this the hard way while living with monks in 1995.

They all spoke several languages — Tibetan, Nepali, Hindi — but not English, which was the only language I knew. Thankfully they could read my body language. So if I was trying to teach them the word, “excited,” I had to express that physically. If I didn’t look excited when I said it, they wouldn’t know what the word meant — I could be saying “pineapple” or “Tuesday.” By using my body language, my tone of voice, and my words, they were able to easily understand it.

However, this didn’t work for all concepts.

Trying to teach them how to tell the time, for example, was a total failure. How do you communicate “It’s 3:00” with your body language? You can’t.

When you have feelings to express you can do it nonverbally. When you need to communicate facts, that’s where words excel. But it’s the combination of the two that gives your conversation full meaning.

What this means is important conversations need to happen face-to-face. If you’ve got a really important issue that you’re dealing with at work, there is no point in sending an email to try and resolve it. Your tone or emotion might not get conveyed — or worse, misconstrued.

Think of it this way: peace talks are never resolved through Twitter or email.


Many people are hampered by a professional “poker face.”

No matter what they say or how they say it, their face and voice don’t match the message, which can lead to confusion or inaction. The true meaning can get lost if all of your signals don’t match.

I’ve seen this before, where someone is speaking in a flat tone and they say, “I have good news to share today,” without sounding or looking like they mean it at all. The audience feels lost because there’s no sense of any feeling or expression from the person speaking.

You must remember that you will never go to a meeting for the rest of your career to give people information. You can do that by email. You are only ever in the room to deliver the message in a more human way, engaging the emotions of the people present and moving them more effectively than an email can.

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