One of the favorite statistics cited by communication “experts” is that only 7% of the meaning from spoken communications comes from the actual words spoken. As the story goes, 55% comes from facial expression, and 38% comes from body language, sovaldi tone of voice, etc.
It has been around ever since Albert Mehrabian cited those statistics in a book entitled Silent Messages, published in 1971.
These experts use it to stress the importance of paying attention to non-verbal signals, whether you are the listener or the speaker. It’s a good statistic to cite because it’s appropriately surprising and it lends an air of science and precision.
The problem with the statistics cited is that it’s mostly false; in my own very unscientific estimate, it’s probably about, oh, let’s say 7% true.
If it were actually true, then when I was in Italy last week, I should have had no problem understanding 93% of what the taxi drivers told me (I didn’t). Plus, I could save a ton of money not buying headphones to watch airplane movies. If it were actually true, then listening to an educational podcast or talking on the phone garners you less than half of the message. And of course, you probably would not be able to understand this article unless I filled it with emoticons, which I refuse to do. It’s so patently untrue that when I read or hear that from someone, I automatically disqualify them as a credible source.
But most people aren’t that simplistic. Some who cite the study come closer to the truth by qualifying it to the part of the message that contains feelings and attitudes. And that definitely makes sense in a lot of communications. If I ask someone how their meeting went, and they answer “great”, I can instantly tell whether they are sincere or sarcastic. In that situation, 0% of the message came from the actual meaning of the word; they could have answered me in Swahili and I would have understood.
But of course it gets more ambiguous as messages get longer, and it definitely does not apply when the speaker is deliberately trying not to show their true feelings. It also does not apply when someone is explaining factual or technical information. If I ask someone for directions, their facial expressions won’t make much difference in my understanding.
So, what did Mehrabian actually measure, and what did he say? Three female speakers were recorded saying one word, “maybe” in either a like, neutral or dislike tone of voice, and then 17 subjects listened to the recordings and were asked to infer what the attitude of the speaker was to a third party to whom they were presumably speaking. A follow-up study was then done with 30 subjects, using nine different words grouped according to the same three attitudes, and the results of both studies were combined to arrive at the statistics cited.
It’s fascinating to me that a study using 10 total words, 47 subjects, conducted in 1967, is still so influential today. As my friends on Sports Center would say, “C’Mon, Man!” (and you can imagine my tone of voice as I say it).
 Note: I do not mean to imply any disrespect to Mehrabian or his study, just to people who try to sound scientific without checking their facts.
Three of the best qualities a persuasive communicator can have are passion, goal focus and a problem-solving orientation. But these positive qualities can actually get in the way of effective listening if they’re overdone.
Passion: Passion is great; it can be contagious and we can be more believable when we let the listener see how much we care about the topic. But everything carries a cost, and passion for your idea can easily turn into arrogance and missed opportunity. The reality is that no one else is passionate about your pet project as you are, and they will ultimately agree for their own reasons—not yours.
The other problem with passion is that you just don’t shut up. You have to tone down the passion long enough to listen to the other’s point of view. You will have plenty of time to dial the passion back up when you go into transmit mode, so squelch it while you’re in receiving mode.
Dial down the passion and dial up the empathy.
Problem-solving: We love to solve problems for others; and that’s a good thing. But we have to tone it down during the listening phase. Rushing in too early with a solution can create problems for you. First, you may be wrong; you may solve the wrong problem, or provide an incomplete solution because you don’t have enough information to understand it completely. Second, even if the answer is exactly right, your credibility may suffer if the other person gets the sense that that’s what you were going to say no matter what.
If you want your solution to land on willing ears, slow down, ask a few more questions to either dig deeper into causes or to bring out the costs of not solving, and–best of all—to let the other person arrive at the solution and make it their own.
Dial down the rush to solve and dial up the patience.
Goal focus: It’s great to have a specific goal in mind for a presentation, sales call, or conversation. But being too focused on your goal is like driving down a busy highway only looking at what’s in the lane in front of you. It’s called inattentional blindness, and it’s illustrated by the now-famous “invisible gorilla” video and Richard Wiseman’s research into what makes some people luckier than others. Similarly, we want to ask excellent questions, but sometimes we’re so focused on the answer we’re looking for that we miss other important information.
By all means, keep your goals and your questions, but use them as a safety net rather than a straitjacket. By getting them out of your head and putting them on paper, you can focus your full attention on your counterpart, knowing that your written goals and questions will be there if and when you need them.
Dial down the searchlight and dial up the floodlight.
One of the most common sayings in sales is that God gave you two ears and one mouth, so you should use them in that proportion. That’s true, but it does not go far enough.
We hear with our ears, but we listen with our brains. There is a big difference between hearing and listening. It’s like the difference between seeing and reading. One is passive, and goes on without having to think; the other is active.
Your ears can only pick up the sounds of language, not its physical expressions. Your brain simultaneously processes and synthesizes signals from the eyes and the ears, picking up “micro-expressions” and other cues, often much faster than conscious thought.
Your ears can only hear what is being said; they faithfully pass on the signal to the brain. Hearing what is not said only takes place in the brain itself.
It may seem strange that something we’ve done naturally for our entire lives could stand improvement, but when you analyze what’s actually happening as your brain is listening, you realize that there is a lot of complicated processing going on. Let’s take a look at what happens when someone is listening. There is a model called SIESR, which stands for:
Sensing: We receive the incoming signals, including expressions, body language and tone of voice.
Interpreting: We figure out the sender’s intent.
Evaluating: We evaluate what it means to us, in this particular context.
Storing: We keep incoming information in working memory so that we can respond properly.
Responding: We do or say something in response.
Out of the five steps above, the first involves the ears, and the last involves the mouth. But the real meat of the sandwich is the three steps in the middle. That’s where the quality and effectiveness of the dialogue takes place.
Interpreting: Have you accurately interpreted what the other person said? Is their meaning clear? Have they told you the entire truth and nothing but? Do their other signals match the words that are coming out of their mouths? What have they left out? Why did they say this and not that? Are we so focused on getting what we want to hear that we miss something important but unexpected?
Evaluating: Is this what we expected them to say? Does it fit with what we already know? If not, how does it change what we thought we knew? What’s the quality of their evidence? How do we know it’s true? If we don’t think it’s true, what are they missing or hiding? How does it fit with our intentions for the conversation?
Storing: Some variations of the model leave out this step, maybe because they take it for granted. But as we become more scatterbrained and attention-deficient, it becomes more and more important to reinforce this step. Are we getting everything they are saying? If they are going on for a while, have our minds wandered in the middle of their soliloquy? Are we taking effective notes?
Keep in mind that these mental operations are going on while the other person is speaking, which is only possible because our minds can process words about four times as fast as the other person can speak them. This means that we have plenty of bandwidth to run these operations while the other person is speaking. Unfortunately that can also be a big disadvantage, because or attention can flit in and out; what often happens is that we either let our minds wander to something else, or we think we know how they’re going to finish the sentence so we either sneak a quick peek at our email or we begin formulating our response. Anytime these things happen, it’s easy to lose the thread of the conversation, and can be difficult to get it back.
How to improve listening with your brain?
Prepare for the conversation. If it’s a sales call, of course you want to have a call plan. But even for personal conversations, you can review your notes or refresh your memory for previous conversations, and have an intent for the dialogue. Put away whatever was on your mind up to that point and remind yourself to listen actively.
Get physically involved. Sometimes the mind takes cues from what the body is doing. Face the other person squarely if you’re face to face. If it’s on the phone, make sure you’re not positioned with a screen in front of your face. Use following skills. While this is not “thinking”, it will keep your focus locked onto the conversation.
Use your faster thinking time to your advantage. If the person is talking at length, use the extra processing bandwidth to summarize and repeat the message. Use that time to monitor your own listening behavior. Focus fully on what they’re saying, not what your response is going to be—you will have plenty of time for that when they’re done.