Non-verbal communication, the workplace, and you

Mehrabian and you


Albert Mehrabian conducted a series of very influential studies in the late 1960s. In these studies, he had participants attempt to guess the meaning of single words such as “dear,” “terrible,” and “maybe.” The participants had to decide whether they were favorable, neutral, or unfavorable. The first battery of tests showed the speaker, and the second covered up the speakers face. The study showed that being able to see the speaker’s face determined how well the listener was able to understand the message. Using the collected data from several studies, Albert Mehrabian was able to come up with a formula for verbal communication:

 7% Verbal (actual words) + 38% Vocal (tone) + 55% Facial Expression

 While the formula is a vast over simplification of human communication, it does highlight a very important point; communication with people is more than the words themselves. It is important to remember to utilize the whole message, not just the vocabulary to ensure we communicate both information and meaning. In this article, I will be talking about non-verbal communication in the workplace and give some suggestions on how to improve your own   non-verbal communication skills.

 

The non-verbal trench run

In the workplace, ensuring your message reaches your audience accurately is even more important, and also more difficult. Taking into account the mixed cultures, varying degrees of attention, and the rushed pace of activity, it is a wonder any communication happens at all. In fact, miscommunications occur all the time.

 When businesses talk about “miscommunication” it is more than just a misunderstanding of vocabulary. A simple “no” can ruin someone’s day by morphing into a “never” because the person saying no was rushing out the door to get to an important meeting. Everyone has had that boss that says “maybe” and it always meant “forever and always, no.” Or the boss who says “maybe” and it meant that if you bothered them enough, you could get a yes. This becomes a hazard when your boss is paraphrasing someone else’s words or is simply repeating his bosses’ words.

 It is entirely possible to miss one meaning and catch another. What if you have a coworker who is going through a nasty divorce, and you ask how a non-related customer account is proceeding? If they are near tears and say, “I am having some difficulty,” it would be easy to assume that account is spiraling down the drain whereas your coworker could be simply having some problems getting a quote from a vendor. Also, as humans, we tend to believe every part of communication with another is entirely about ourselves. If your coworker seems to be dodging your questions and looking to get out of the conversation as quickly as possible, you may assume that they have something to hide when in fact, the person just needs to use the bathroom and you caught them on the way.

How to make it work for you

So what does the average person do with all this non-verbal communication information? First, it is important to note most of this information is out of your control. In fact, body language is a very important indicator for many investigators because the subject simply cannot control all of their non-verbal ques. But don’t worry; you do not need to be some sort of super sleuth to make the most of your communication skills.

Start by unifying your message. When communicating with someone, especially in the workplace, focus your attention, thoughts, and presence on the message. Ensure you are not thinking about lunch options when detailing a financial merger with a coworker. By unifying your message, other events going on around you, either externally or internally, will have less of a chance to contaminate your message. Also, you will be giving more respect to others simply by being more focused.

You can also use the knowledge of non-verbal communication to refine your message. Start gauging your audience and know whether or not they care about what you are saying. If speaking to your boss and you find that they seem distracted or bored with your report, change gears, offer a quick verbal summary, and then offer to send details in an email. Not only will you have a thankful boss, but also you will have a second chance to convey important information that he or she can read when they are more focused.

When on the receiving end of verbal communication, try and get the same information from multiple sources, especially if the person is attempting to persuade you to do something. It is easy to get distracted by the other parts of the sender’s message when trying to make a decision.

Mehabrian’s legacy

Mehabrian’s study has left us with the knowledge that a good deal of our communication comes from non-verbal channels and has a weighty role in determining if both the information and meaning reaches our intended targets. In the workplace, accurate and precise communication is extremely important in order to succeed. Individuals must focus on their non-verbal communication to unify and focus their meaning to prevent miscommunicating. While the formula Mehabrian came up with may be controversial, the importance for your messages beyond the words themselves is not.

By R. Sean O’Leary, Computer Science major, Purdue College of Technology

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