Category : Body Language

Body Language Observation

Myth – 93% of Communication is Non-Verbal

Regardless of which body language book you pick up or which online course you take, body language experts all promote the same that 93% of all communication is non-verbal (55% body language, 38% tone of voice). Meaning that our actual words only account for 7% of what we say.

This statistic is emphasised mostly to show how important body language is (I agree) but unfortunately, it’s been hugely misinterpreted.

This popular statistic was started back in the 1960’s when UCLA professor, Albert Mehrabian conducted what he describes as “very limited studies” into communication.

In the study, participants listened to recordings of a woman’s voice saying “maybe” with 3 different tones of voice to intentionally convey liking, neutrality and dislike. The subjects were also shown photos of the woman’s face displaying these same 3 emotions.

Their task was to guess, separately, the emotion conveyed in the audio, then the photos and then both together.

The results showed that when the subject saw both the photo and listened to the audio, they were 50% more likely to identify the emotions correctly.

Professor Mehrabian performed a follow up study  where the participants listened to 9 words (3 for liking, 3 for neutrality and 3 for dislike) with each word pronounced 3 different ways.

When asked to guess the emotions, the tone of voice used when the word was spoken were more influential than the words themselves.

The results of Mehrabian’s studies were combined and showed that when expressing an emotional message, if the person’s body language and tone of voice didn’t match up with the words being spoken, that the message would be misinterpreted or misunderstood.

Their applicability to body language as we know it, is very limited as they dealt with only individual words and didn’t explore stories or conversations.

However, when the results were published in 1967, they were heavily edited and summarised for ease of understanding and not accuracy, leading to the incorrect, but popular statistics.

For example, observing only body language (not lip reading) and tone of voice, see if you can understand any of your favourite presentations or videos. Non-verbal communicates emotion very well, but it’s not really possible to communicate facts or useful information – save via charades or sign language.

This post isn’t intended to disparage or discredit many of the knowledgeable and respected body language experts who do fibrillation work with clients every day, but to highlight and dispel a very popular myth.

Non-verbal communication is still VERY important in conveying congruent, heartfelt messages, but the statistics just aren’t as accurate as you might have been led to believe.


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Body Language Observation

Ignore Micro-Expressions…For Now

Body language experts such as Paul Ekman, Joe Navarro and Vanessa Van Edwards give a great deal of attention on micro-expressions. For skilled practitioners like them, reading micro-expressions is incredibly useful and almost second-nature. Unfortunately, for beginners and inexperienced people watchers, micro-expressions are quite difficult to spot.

TV shows such as Lie To Me (based on Paul Ekman) explain that you can read tiny expressions on people’s faces that tell you the hidden emotions behind their words. This is true, but we display multiple micro-expressions in a short space of time it’s very difficult for a beginner to pick up more than one expression in a few seconds – there’s just too much going on.

To spot micro-expressions, you need excellent vision, to know exactly what to look for and be able to observe the entire body, focus on the words and tone of voice AND look at the face all at the same time – it’s a lot to take in and as a beginner it won’t really get you anywhere.

Micro-expressions are often touted as the give-away for deception, but unless you’re a highly skilled practitioner, they will rarely be the indicators that give away a lie in real-time as it occurs. They happen so quickly, unless you have cameras, you’re just never going to see them. Even if you do use video playback, the usefulness of detecting a lie hours after it has happened tends to be minimal.

As a beginner, it’s better to focus on larger movements, involving the hands, arms, torso and feet. Once you’ve got a handle on larger movements, then it’s time to sharpen your reading of facial expressions.

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