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Processing Information

We often hear that the content of a message is composed of:

 

  • 55% from the visual component

  • 38% from the auditory component

  • 7% from language

 

However, the above percentages only apply in a very narrow context. A researcher named Mehrabian was interested in how listeners get their information about a speaker's general attitude in situations where the facial expression, tone, and/or words are sending conflicting signals.

 

Thus, he designed a couple of experiments. In one, Mehrabian and Ferris (1967) researched the interaction of speech, facial expressions, and tone. Three different speakers were instructed to say "maybe" with three different attitudes towards their listener (positive, neutral, or negative). Next, photographs of the faces of three female models were taken as they attempted to convey the emotions of like, neutrality, and dislike.

 

Test groups were then instructed to listen to the various renditions of the word "maybe," with the pictures of the models, and were asked to rate the attitude of the speaker. Note that the emotion and tone were often mixed, such as a facial expression showing dislike, with the word "maybe" spoken in a positive tone.

 

Significant effects of facial expression and tone were found in that the study suggested that the combined effect of simultaneous verbal, vocal and facial attitude communications is a weighted sum of their independent effects with the coefficients of .07, .38, and .55, respectively.

 

Mehrabian and Ferris caution their readers about the limitation to their research, "These findings regarding the relative contribution of the tonal component of a verbal message can be safely extended only to communication situations in which no additional information about the communicator addressee relationship is available." Thus, what can be concluded is that when people communicate, listeners derive information about the speaker's attitudes towards the listener from visual, tonal, and verbal cues; yet the percentage derived can vary greatly depending upon a number of other factors, such as actions, context of the communication, and how well the communicators know each other.

The Impact of Non-Verbal Communication

To deliver the full impact of a message, use nonverbal behaviors to raise the channel of interpersonal communication:

  • Eye contact: This helps to regulate the flow of communication. It signals interest in others and increases the speaker's credibility. People who make eye contact open the flow of communication and convey interest, concern, warmth, and credibility.

  • Facial Expressions: Smiling is a powerful cue that transmits happiness, friendliness, warmth, and liking. So, if you smile frequently you will be perceived as more likable, friendly, warm and approachable. Smiling is often contagious and people will react favorably. They will be more comfortable around you and will want to listen more.

  • Gestures: If you fail to gesture while speaking you may be perceived as boring and stiff. A lively speaking style captures the listener's attention, makes the conversation more interesting, and facilitates understanding.

  • Posture and body orientation: You communicate numerous messages by the way you talk and move. Standing erect and leaning forward communicates to listeners that you are approachable, receptive and friendly. Interpersonal closeness results when you and the listener face each other. Speaking with your back turned or looking at the floor or ceiling should be avoided as it communicates disinterest.

  • Proximity: Cultural norms dictate a comfortable distance for interaction with others. You should look for signals of discomfort caused by invading the other person's space. Some of these are: rocking, leg swinging, tapping, and gaze aversion.

  • Vocal: Speaking can signal nonverbal communication when you include such vocal elements as: tone, pitch, rhythm, timbre, loudness, and inflection. For maximum teaching effectiveness, learn to vary these six elements of your voice. One of the major criticisms of many speakers is that they speak in a monotone voice. Listeners perceive this type of speaker as boring and dull.

Emotions

In the mid-1960s, Paul Ekman studied emotions and discovered six facial expressions that almost everyone recognizes world-wide: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and surprise. Although they were controversial at first (he was booed off the stage when he first presented it to a group of anthropologists and later called a fascist and a racist) they are now widely accepted. One of the controversies still lingering is the amount of context needed to interpret them. For example, if someone reports to me that they have this great ideal that they would like to implement, and I say that would be great, but I look on them with a frown, is it possible that I could be thinking about something else? The trouble with these extra signals is that we do not always have the full context. What if the person emailed me and I replied great (while frowning). Would it evoke the same response?

 

Trust your instincts. Most emotions are difficult to imitate. For example, when you are truly happy, the muscles used for smiling are controlled by the limbic system and other parts of the brain, which are not under voluntary control. When you force a smile, a different part of the brain is used - the cerebral cortex (under voluntary control), hence different muscles are used. This is why a clerk, who might not have any real interest in you, has a fake look when he forces a smile.

 

Of course, some actors learn to control all of their facial muscles, while others draw on a past emotional experience to produce the emotional state they want. But this is not an easy trick to pull off all the time. There is a good reason for this - part of our emotions evolved to deal with other people and our empathic nature. If these emotions could easily be faked, they would do more harm than good (Pinker, 1997).

 

So, our emotions not only guide our decisions, they can also be communicated to others to help them in their decisions. Of course, their emotions will be the ultimate guide, but the emotions they discover in others become part of their knowledge base.

Tips for Effective Communication

If one's goal is to fully understand and connect with the other person,

listening effectively will often come naturally. If it doesn't, one can

remember the following tips. The more they practice them, the

more satisfying and rewarding their interactions with others will become.

 

  • When speaking or trying to explain something, ask the listeners if they are following you.

  • Focus fully on the speaker, their body language, and other nonverbal cues. If you're daydreaming, checking text messages, or doodling, you're almost certain to miss nonverbal cues in the conversation. If you find it hard to concentrate on some speakers, try repeating their words over in your head; it'll reinforce their message and help you stay focused.

  • Ensure the receiver has a chance to comment or ask questions.

  • Avoid interrupting or trying to redirect the conversation to your concerns, by saying something like, "If you think that's bad, let me tell you what happened to me." Listening is not the same as waiting for your turn to talk. You can't concentrate on what someone's saying if you're forming what you're going to say next. Often, the speaker can read your facial expressions and know that your mind's elsewhere.

  • Try to put yourself in the other person's shoes - consider the feelings of the receiver.

  • Avoid seeming judgmental. In order to communicate effectively with someone, you don't have to like them or agree with their ideas, values, or opinions. However, you do need to set aside your judgment and withhold blame and criticism in order to fully understand a person. The most difficult communication, when successfully executed, can lead to the most unlikely and profound connection with someone.

  • Be clear about what you say.

  • Show your interest in what's being said. Nod occasionally, smile at the person, and make sure your posture is open and inviting. Encourage the speaker to continue with small verbal comments like "yes" or "uh huh."

  • Look at the receiver.

  • Make sure your words match your tone and body language (nonverbal behaviors).

  • Vary your tone and pace.

  • Do not be vague, but on the other hand, do not complicate what you are saying with too much detail.

  • Do not ignore signs of confusion.

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