When most people think of communication, they think of speaking and clearly articulating the information or message. A smaller number of people see communication as both the speaker engaging in the interaction and the listener engaging to be able to respond.
However, speaking and listening are only two components of communication. It is not just the spoken words that are articulated and heard that carries in the message. In the past, the common statistic provided was about 93% of communication is non-verbal.
This actually came from the book Silent Messages by Albert Mehrabian, which was published in 1971. This book relied on the information from two small studies completed by Mehrabian and Ferris. The actual percentages from those studies were that 55% of communication is body language, 38% is the tone of voice, and 7% is the actual words used by the speaker.
Regardless of the exact breakdown, there are multiple ways we share messages without using our words. Even when we are silent in a meeting or listening to a partner or child, we are sending a clear message. Recognizing how we communicate without speaking can help to avoid creating conflict, develop better relationships, and prevent sending mixed messages in our professional and personal lives.
Facial expressions, which include microexpressions of emotions, are very difficult to control, but they are received by others. A microexpression is that fleeting expression of a true emotion before we put on our “poker face” and hide the natural response. It may be difficult for others even to recognize and identify the microexpression, but they sense the underlying emotion.
Eye contact and eye movement are other ways we signal interest, agreement, or disagreement. It is also a sign of respect. However, not all cultures see eye contact in the same way. For example, some cultures view looking directly at the speaker as respectful, while others see direct eye contact as a challenge or sign of disrespect.
Closing off the body, such as moving or leaning away from the speaker, crossing arms and legs, and slouching or slumping when seated or standing sends a negative message. On the other hand, leaning in slightly, sitting or standing straight but not rigid, are all signs of openness and engagement.
Another factor to consider in communication is your focus on the speaker. If you are multitasking, even if you are on the phone or a Zoom meeting, others recognize you are not fully engaged. This sends a definite message about the priority or importance of their message, which is only going to block or limit communication.
Becoming aware of how non-verbal behaviors impact communication is important. Finding a way to focus on the speaker and share a consistent message with your verbal and non-verbal input improves overall communication.