Laura Erkeneff - Insights to Leadership

Communication breaks down to basically three elements: words, tone of voice and non-verbal (facial cues).

While preparing to teach a new course for the American Management Association I came across some interesting statistics on communicating emotions and attitudes. In his book, Silent Messages: Implicit Communication of Emotions and Attitudes, Albert Mehrabian a Professor Emeritus of UCLA, found that communication breaks down to basically three elements: words, tone of voice and non-verbal (facial cues). His research then showed that when communicating emotion or attitudes we gain our meaning 55% of the time from facial cues, 38% from the tone of voice, and 7% from the words a person uses.

Only 7% from words?! Think about how this affects you at work. If you are upset at work and think that your manager doesn’t know, you are most likely fooling yourself.  This also applies to how you thought you hid your feelings about the person who was late in giving the team the critical path deliverable on time last week.  We may say that everything is “fine”, but our face gives us away in a nanoflash by a “facial cue” that occurs in only a nanosecond.

To me, this was a small but profound bit of the puzzle to answer the question of how human denial works. We are not looking at our faces when we communicate unless we are standing in front of a mirror.  For us, the experience of communicating mostly occurs in our mind. Even when we are aware that we are feeling emotions, most of us still wait to open our mouths until our brains have chosen ideas that allow us to put these emotions into words. Thus, on our end of communication, we are looking from the inside out. We can fool ourselves into thinking that others can’t read us.

If you doubt what I am saying, take a look at people when they don’t think others are paying attention. This is especially noticeable when it is something like a panel discussion or other public event. Unless the person is a trained actor or musician they most likely are showing their stress or energy level when they are not speaking. It is written all over their face.

Take a moment to think about what others are seeing when they look at us. Our message is written across our faces, too, in small “mico-expressions” or facial cues that convey the meaning that goes unsaid.  Reading these facial cues is hardwired into us from birth as well as picked up along the way in the form of social learning. We are not fooling anyone except ourselves when we are not congruent in our communication.

This means that we need to make an effort to be honest in our communication and deliver the difficult messages, too. It really does pay to give honest feedback at work in performance reviews, when someone is late on deliverables or when a person’s constant interruptions keep you from focusing on your own work. We are only saying what others already know at the facial cue level. By giving honest feedback that focuses on stating the issue and asking for help or offering a suggestion to solve the problem, we show up as someone who is sincere about trying to improve the situation. We show up as someone who gives honest feedback as well as congruent in our messages. We show up as a person who can be trusted.