Mehrabian's Communication Model
Learning to Communicate Clearly
Have you ever opened an email from a colleague and misinterpreted the words on the screen?
Perhaps you felt the message was critical of you or your work, when in fact that wasn't what the writer intended at all. Or maybe you've had the experience of speaking with a client over the phone and knowing, just from their tone of voice, that you're not going to get the sale this time.
Communication is made up of more than just the words we use. Our tone of voice, facial expression and body language all play a major role in how we're understood. And if we're communicating in a situation where we can't use all of these elements to enhance our messages, we need to be very careful.
You might well have heard the popular statistic that only seven percent of any message is conveyed through the words you choose. The other 93 percent is allegedly found in subtle clues like your tone of voice and body language. This claim stems from a study done by psychologist Albert Mehrabian in the late Sixties. But beware, it's all too often misquoted!
In this article we'll explain what Mehrabian's Communication Model really says, and look at how you can use its findings in your everyday life.
Mehrabian's Communication Model
In 1967, in a study titled "Inference of Attitudes from Nonverbal Communication in Two Channels," psychologist Albert Mehrabian revealed groundbreaking new data, relating to the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages.
In his original study, Mehrabian considered different combinations of "positive," "neutral," and "negative" attitude, as expressed through both facial expression and tone of voice.
For example, he used the word "maybe" to test how well people could judge the feelings of others. As a word, "maybe" was considered to be neutral in meaning. It was then read to participants using a positive, neutral, and negative tone of voice, and listeners had to judge the attitude of the speaker, based primarily on their tone of voice.
The study allowed Mehrabian to consider the relative importance of three elements in our communication: words, tone of voice, and facial expression. He wanted to discover which carried the most weight in order to know whether we listen more to what people say, or to how they're saying it.
When his research was complete, Mehrabian concluded that, in situations dealing with feelings and attitudes, facial expression was the most significant element, followed by tone of voice. The actual words spoken were least important for communication.
As part of his work, Mehrabian, also studied the effects of "inconsistent communication," where a particular facial expression or tone of voice was clearly at odds with the words being used. So, when there is incongruence in this way, what will people actually pay most attention to? Do they respond to words, tone of voice, or body language?
Mehrabian once again deduced that people will respond to body language and voice tone over verbal, or word choice. For instance, if the words "Go away!" are said with a positive vocal tone (even though the meaning itself is negative), the listener will likely interpret the experience as positive.
Using his overall findings, Mehrabian created this formula for the relative importance of the different components of communication about emotions or attitudes:
Total Emotion/Attitude Communicated = 7 percent Verbal + 38 percent Vocal + 55 percent Facial
Since its publication, Mehrabian's study has become very well known, both in communication literature and the popular media. But it's all too often misquoted and misinterpreted.
The misinterpretation occurs when people assume that his formula applies to all communication situations. But Mehrabian clarifies on his website that his study dealt only with communications involving feelings and attitudes. He states that "Unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable."
How to Use the Model
So, how can you correctly apply Mehrabian's Communication Model to your life?
Knowing about the model can be useful in email communications when you're relaying sensitive or emotional information. In these situations, without input from facial expression or tone of voice, you'll need to take extra care choosing the words in your message. Without the non-verbal clues, words and meaning can easily be misinterpreted. (This is why emoticons are so useful when you're writing an in informal email.)
It's also useful for telephone conversations. Remember that without facial cues, your tone of voice and word choice will have more impact. Be aware of your tone when you're speaking, and choose your words carefully. Make sure that they match your actual intention and message. This is, of course, particularly important when you're speaking about a highly sensitive or emotional issue.
You can use the model to guide your actions. For instance, imagine that you need to give some negative feedback to a colleague. Because body language and facial expression are so important when expressing your feelings about his or her performance, you know that relaying this feedback in person (rather than via email or over the phone) will increase the odds of no undue offense being taken. You'll be able to get across your true intentions and message more clearly if you can use both facial expression and vocal tone. You'll also be able to see your colleague's reaction immediately, and, if necessary, adjust your message appropriately.
Mehrabian's model can also be applied in meetings. Imagine you're giving a presentation about a project you care about deeply. As you speak about your commitment to the project, your body language and facial expressions are going to relay your genuine emotions far more than the words you're speaking. If your audience needs convincing, the way that you deliver your message will be critical.
The model can also be useful in interviews. When you're speaking with a particular candidate, pay close attention to how they answer emotionally-charged questions. For instance, "What excites you about the possibility of working for this company?" would be a good one. Their facial expression and vocal tone should let you know if they're truly interested in becoming part of the team or if they're just after a paycheck.
Mehrabian's Communication Model suggests that people tend to respond to body language and tone of voice over word choice, particularly if the message being communicated is emotionally-charged or sensitive.
The Model can help us to make sure that, when we communicate, we make that message clear not only in our choice of words, but also in our facial expressions, tone of voice and body language. By doing this we can minimize miscommunication and misunderstanding.