It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.
Like all aphorisms, that one contains more than a kernel of truth. In fact, it’s 93 percent true, according to Dr. Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA.
Dr. Mehrabian has been studying how people communicate since the 1960s. His breakthrough was showing that tone of voice and nonverbal cues – body language, posture, facial expression and eye contact – communicate our feelings and attitudes more powerfully than words:
- 7 percent of feelings and attitudes comes from the actual words that are spoken;
- 38 percent comes from tone of voice;
- 55 percent comes from nonverbal cues.
It is important to note that this doesn’t necessarily apply to the meaning of what is said, but rather the feelings and attitudes behind the words.
This explains why we sometimes prefer to send bad news by email or letter rather than personally. We don’t want to have to look the person in the eye.
And it explains why messages can so easily be misinterpreted when tweeted or texted. We’re only getting seven percent. We can’t see whether the sender was smiling or frowning when the send button was pushed. We get the content, but not the context.
Step One: Meet In Person
Consider your most recent face-to-face discussion. Chances are you don’t have a verbatim recall of everything that was said. But you certainly have a clear sense of whether the conversation was pleasant, painful or neutral.
Put another way, we need to see the person in order to fully understand what is being expressed.
Complex, nuanced discussions with a client or opposing counsel should not be attempted by phone or online. Sit down together and take advantage of the entire communication toolkit: words, gestures, grimaces, groans, shouts, murmurs, nods and handshakes.
Step Two: Be Congruent
Another key component of communication is “congruity.” This means that our content (words), tone of voice (sound), and non-verbal statements (body language) should line up and support each other.
If they are inconsistent – when, for example, our words don’t match our facial expressions – the recipient will trust non-verbal communication first, tone of voice second, and the actual words third.
We’ll all had someone come up to us and say, “I really hate to have to tell you this, but …” And yet their expression – perhaps barely able to suppress a giggle – conveys anything but remorse.
Another example: Someone says “Oh no, everything’s fine” through clenched teeth and with balled fists while avoiding eye contact, shaking visibly and sweating profusely. There’s a 93 percent chance you won’t believe everything is actually hunky-dory.
So the next time you’re tempted to text a client that their case has been dismissed or that they’ve lost custody of the twins, stop. Don’t do it. Schedule a meeting instead. And try to come up with not only the right words – but the behavior to match.
Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man is an attorney licensed in North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is smiling as he writes this. firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 919-619-2441.
For more information: Dr. Albert Mehrabian