Rewriting the Rules of Communication

Sometimes events seem to happen in clusters – that was certainly the case with me when during the last week I stumbled over two blog entries and several Web articles discussing a long-held tenet in project communication, the 55% – 38% – 7% rule.

The “rule” has become a bit of a commonplace in discussions about the effectiveness of face-to-face communication as opposed to written communication and is often assumed to mean that during any given conversation receivers glean 55% of the information from the body-language and physical presence of the sender, 38% from the tone and inflection of their voice and only 7% from the actual verbal content of what was said. Stated as such this is a dangerous oversimplification of the results of a series of experiments conducted by Albert Mehrabian in 1967.

Mehrabian and his colleagues set out to quantify the ratio communications content between facial expressions and spoken words when receivers try to assess a sender’s emotional state. During the test subjects listened to a recording of a woman speaking the emotionally neutral word “maybe” in different tones of voice to convey liking, neutrality and dislike. In a second step subjects reviewed photos of female faces showing the same emotions while listening to the words again. They then had to guess the emotions portrayed by the recorded voice, by the photos and by both in combination. Subjects did better with the photos than with the tone of voice by a ratio of 3:2.

In a second set of experiments the researchers presented a series of nine recorded words, three implying a positive relationship between sender and receiver (“honey”, “dear” and “thanks”), three of neutral content (“maybe”, “really” and “oh”) and another three to imply a negative relationship (“don’t”, “brute” and “terrible”). The words were presented in different tones of voice sometimes reinforcing the relationship the words implied, sometimes going contrary to the meaning of the words, i.e. “dear” pronounced in a fashion that implied profound dislike. Subjects assessed the sender’s emotion conveyed by the tone rather than by the dictionary meaning of the word.

When Mehrabian and his colleagues made a statistical summation of their findings they assessed that in a situation where a receiver had to deduce the emotional state of the sender from a single spoken word they took 55% of their cues from the sender’s facial expression, 38% from their tone and inflection of voice and 7% from the actual dictionary meaning of the word.

This of course would make the 55% – 38% – 7% rule really helpful, if all of our conversations we had on projects consisted in 1-word exchanges and had as a primary objective to find out how the other person was feeling toward us…

However, most projects tend to be a little more complex… And this is actually good news for all the project managers who I have worked with and who usually look very dispirited when they have to reconcile the “rule” with the fact that most of their communication will be via email or conference call these days. Project managers manage virtual teams and may have to communicate with a customer in Europe, business analysts in the US and a developer team in India or China. No one ever has the luxury to meet the entire team face-to-face, and even seeing everyone via web-cam on a conference call may still feel like a luxury.

So, should we feel demoralized by the conclusion that we will only have a 7% chance at successful communication if we’re not all in the same room?

To me the scenario reminds me a little of holding a screaming baby. I will have no problem with understanding that the little person in my arms is profoundly unhappy, but I am still at a loss when it comes to helping. Without words I cannot know whether providing food or a clean diaper will make a difference or if the baby is colicky or in some other sort of discomfort. Having an infant that can speak and tell me what’s wrong would make things so much easier. Therefore I think that the written word and non-face-to-face communication have got a worse rep than they actually deserve.

Anyone who has read “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” by Malcolm Gladwell, knows how powerful – and occasionally perilous – the kind of information is that we can gain in the first few split seconds of observing someone engage us face-to-face. It’s the kind of information that has allowed us to survive as a species – assessing correctly at a glance whether the stranger coming towards us is a threat or a friend can be life-saving in some contexts, but when it comes to more complex data and situations it can also point us in the wrong direction.

If we saw the value of picking up a phone or taking our time to compose an email as an opportunity rather than as the inferior choice in all situations we could concentrate on using these powerful communication tools to our best advantage.

Once I was able to let go of the 55% – 38% – 7% rule I’ve decided to embrace some different communication rules:

  • Do not think that in a face-to-face encounter your words don’t matter. Yes, you want to be aware of your posture, your dress and all of the non-verbal cues, but that’s not enough: there is no excuse for speaking sloppily, incoherently, using filler-words ever other sentence and being ill prepared for what you want to say. What comes out of your mouth matters, more than just 7%!
  • Celebrate email, texts and other written documentation as a powerful tool to convey complex information that has nothing to do with emotion and that you want to be able to compose and read and re-read before you send it. In fact, it can be a great tool to “cool off” when you are in a state where talking to someone face-to-face would cause some serious relationship damage.