Albert Mehrabian’s 7-38-55 Communication model says that only 7% of communication of feelings and attitudes takes place through the words we use, while 38% takes place through tone and voice and the remaining 55% of communication of these factors take place through the body language we use (specifically our facial expressions).Summary by The World of Work Project
Mehrabian’s 7-38-55 Communication Model
We are often told that tone, body language, nuance and facial expressions play a huge role in the our communications. And that this is particularly the case when we are communicating in situations where understanding emotions and attitudes is important. This is part of the reason that emails are often seen as less effective that telephone calls, which are less effective than video calls which are in turn less effective than face to face meetings.
Based on research, Albert Mehrabian has concluded that only 7% of communication relating to feelings and attitudes takes place through the words we use, while 38% takes place through tone and voice and the remaining 55% take place through body language.
How many times have you had a conversation with someone where they are saying one thing, but all the signals they are putting out are saying something completely different? For example, you might be asking someone if they are happy with the piece of work you have delegated to them. They might be using words to say that “yes” they are, but their tone and body language might be making it clear that they are not.
A lesson we can draw from this research is that we need to pay attention to far more than just the words others are using when we communicate with them. This does mean that face to face communications can be helpful, at least some of the time, if we are to communicate effectively together. And when we are not face to face, say on a video-call, on the telephone or using email, we might want to change our approach to communication or ask more specific questions, if we are to ensure we’re communicating effectively.
In addition, we should also be aware of what we communicate to others through our tone and body language, not just our words. We convey huge amounts of information this way. As leaders and managers, it’s important that we understand what we’re communicating and that we try and communicate intentionally.
Also, we should also ensure that we can listen effectively. One way to think about this is the SIER Hierarchy of Active Listening, another is the Six Facets of Effective Listening for Better Connection. Of course, listening too is about more than just words. We need to learn to observe tone and body language, and understand what people are really communicating to us.
Effective communication is a key skill in the world of work. We’ve written several other posts on the topic. These include the tongue in cheek ABCs of communication, the 7 Cs of communication and 10 Tips for Better Presentations. We’ve also written a bit on persuasion and influence. Posts include Cialdini’s 6 Principles of Persuasion and Monroe’s Motivated Sequence.
We’ve also explored the important role that communications and stories play in organizational change. You might enjoy this podcast which explores that idea.
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The World of Work Project View
We are slightly wary of the precise numbers within Mehrabian’s 7-38-55 Communication Model from a work context, but that’s not really the point of the model. Even Professor Mehrabian called out words of caution around the absolute accuracy of these percentage in his work. He noted that his research focused on the communication of emotions and feeling, and acknowledged that contributing factors will be quite different when different topics are being discussed.
Regardless of the exact accuracy of the model, or the specific topics of conversation that it relates to, we like it. We know the numbers could be somewhat incorrect, but we still think the underlying message, that words alone don’t constitute communication, is very important.
Many individuals and leaders fail to appreciate the importance of other means of communication. By focusing on non-verbal signs from others they can improve their awareness of others and their awareness of the impact of their words and actions on others.
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Mehrabian, A., 1981. Silent Messages. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Pub. Co.
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Carrier, J. (2019). Mehrabian’s 7-38-55 Communication Model: It’s More Than Words. Retrieved [insert date] from The World of Work Project: https://worldofwork.io/2019/07/mehrabians-7-38-55-communication-model/