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Myth-Information: Communication is 93% Nonverbal

Posted by Don Mansfield, 10 March 2009 · 17,698 views

The myth about communication being 93% nonverbal probably didn't start in the contracting field, but we are partly responsible for its spread. This is especially true when it comes to the subject of contract negotiation. The course manual for CON 100 used to state that communication was 90% nonverbal as a matter of fact. A speaker at a recent conference that I attended used a figure of 93% in a presentation on contract negotiation. The current Contract Pricing Reference Guides contain a variation of this claim in a chapter titled "Nonverbal Communication" (Volume V, Chapter 5):

QUOTE
Communication Is More Than Verbal. Good negotiators must first be good communicators. Unfortunately, many negotiators think of communication only as oral or written verbal exchanges. But verbal exchanges account for only a fraction of the messages people send and receive. Research has shown that between 70 and 90 percent of the entire communication spectrum is nonverbal. Consequently, you should be aware of the different forms of nonverbal communication that you are likely to encounter during negotiation conferences. [Bold added]


Whenever this claim is made, it's almost always accompanied by a statement that it is supported by "research", but what "research"?

Well, there actually was a research study done in 1967 that found that 93% of communication was nonverbal...under very specific conditions. The following excerpt from The Virtual Handshakeexplains just what the study found:

QUOTE
Albert Mehrabian, a UCLA professor, completed research in 1967 showing the significance of non-verbal cues in communications. He concluded, in part, ?The combined effect of simultaneous verbal, vocal and facial attitude communications is a weighted sum of their independent effects ? with the coefficients of .07, .38, and .55, respectively.? (Albert Mehrabian and Susan R. Ferris, ?Inference of attitudes from nonverbal communication in two channels.? Journal of Consulting Psychology 31 (1967): 248-252. ) Out of context, this implies that in face-to-face conversation, 38% of communication is inflection and tone of voice, 55% is facial expression, and only 7% is based on what you actually say.

This statistic has grown into a very widely quoted and oft-misunderstood urban legend. Many communication skills teachers and image consultants misuse this data to indicate that your intonation, speaking style, body language, and other non-verbal methods of communication overpower your actual words. As a result, many people are concerned that online communication is much more difficult because body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions cannot today be effectively conveyed over the internet.

Not true. Mehrabian?s study only addressed the very narrow situation in which a listener is analyzing a speaker?s general attitude towards that listener (positive, negative, or neutral). Also, in his experiments the parties had no prior acquaintance; they had no context for their discussion. As Mehrabian himself has said explicitly, these statistics are not relevant except in the very narrow confines of a similar situation.


Mehrabian's exact words appear in a description of his book "Silent Messages" -- A Wealth of Information About Nonverbal Communication (Body Language):

QUOTE
Inconsistent communications -- the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages. My findings on this topic have received considerable attention in the literature and in the popular media. "Silent Messages" contains a detailed discussion of my findings on inconsistent messages of feelings and attitudes (and the relative importance of words vs. nonverbal cues) on pages 75 to 80.

Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking

Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like-dislike). Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable. Also see references 286 and 305 in Silent Messages -- these are the original sources of my findings. [Bold added].


For a thorough debunking of this myth, see Contributions of Different Modalities to "Content".

Nonverbal communication is important in a contract negotiation. Eye-rolling usually communicates disagreement. A long sigh usually communicates frustration. Busting out laughing at the other party's counteroffer can be an effective way of communicating your intent to consider it. However, unless the parties intend to discuss their emotions in lieu of contract terms, they shouldn't go in to the negotiation thinking that 93% of the message they are sending is nonverbal. If they do, they'll find themselves focusing too much on the form of the negotiation instead of the substance.

As contracting professionals, we all need to do our part to stop the spread of this common communication myth.