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“Something To Sleep On Newsletter From 05/20/2018

Quote I am pondering: “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”

– Peter Drucker

Misunderstood? Maybe only 7% of your message is getting through!

You’re sitting at your desk, shutting things down for the weekend, wrapping up a productive week. Feeling good about what you’ve accomplished but looking forward to a couple of days of well-deserved downtime. You need it. While a lot got done over the past five days it didn’t come without its challenges. Now, literally seconds from leaving, as you reach for the cover of your laptop, a glance across the room shows that Bill, one of your direct reports, is still at his desk. Bill is the weak link on your team. His heart is in the right place, but you routinely call his judgment into question. Maybe just sitting down and talking would help him understand the concerns you have about him and his work. But it’s already 5:30. It’s Friday. You need to get going. So, you shoot a quick email: “Hey Bill, we need to talk. Let’s plan to get together first thing Monday morning.” You care about Bill and want him to succeed. Maybe some progress can be made next week. You close your laptop, turn off your light and head for the elevator.

Meanwhile Bill, sitting across the room, is also ready for a break … from what could only be described as a high-stress week. Only yesterday his work was challenged again. It seems that everything he does lately is subject to heightened scrutiny. If only he got more direction as to what was expected, he might be able to get on better footing with management. His phone buzzes with a text wanting to know what time to expect him for dinner, when the email comes through: “Hey Bill, …”. Trying to read between the lines, to discern the context, the words “we need to talk” strike like a knife in his stomach. Has he screwed up one too many times? Is his job on the line? Suddenly the dinner with his family seems unappetizing. Watching you walk out the door, Bill will spend what he had hoped would be a relaxing weekend fretting. What will the next week bring? Can he trust management to work with him?

What’s wrong with this picture? Quite simply, Bill is only receiving a fraction of the message you would like to convey. He doesn’t have the opportunity to “hear what isn’t said”. As a result, he will spend the next two days in the dark, demotivated and wondering what the near-term future holds. Quite simply, this communication breakdown is exemplary of what has become known (and widely misinterpreted, by the way) as the “7%-38%-55% Rule” of human communication. The “rule”, originally postulated by UCLA Professor Emeritus of Psychology Albert Mehrabian, reflects the relative impact of words (7%), paralinguistics or tone of voice (38%) and body language (55%) when communicating. This rule is particularly important when conveying feelings, attitudes, emotions. These three components of the message need to support each other. If two components are missing, as in the case of email communications, the probability of the intended message being conveyed effectively is greatly diminished. One result of this is a lack of trust on the part of the receiver of the message. Picking up the phone and calling the other person is better, in that the receiver has an opportunity to benefit not only from the words being used but also from tone of voice. The best form of communication when feelings, attitudes and emotions are being conveyed is face-to-face.

How much more effective would your communication as a leader have been, in this scenario, had you gotten up from your desk and walked across the room?

The Importance of Body Language

Ray Birdwhistell was an anthropologist and pioneer in the study of body language, or what he called kinesics. He advanced the theory that all of the senses are important in human communication. While the actual percentages cited by Mehrabian are subject to challenge (Birdwhistell, for example, estimated that as little as 30% of information transferred during conversation is from spoken words) the importance of body language, and paralinguistics when conveying feelings, attitudes and emotions is incontrovertible.

Weekly Question: What is your first inclination when communicating messages that may have a direct impact on others’ emotions? Do you fire off an email? Do you pick up the phone? Or whenever possible do you convey the message face-to-face?


Mike Cobb

I write because that is fundamentally who I am. My writing includes both non-fiction and fiction. Both short form and long form. Both articles and blogs of current interest.


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