Q11: Why use words?
Exploring communication and congruency
(1st June 2012)
Following the handy tips I've posted out over the past year, here's something a little different.
Dare I say it out loud? I'm finally finding time to write, and hope to produce a book on my approaches to communication and emotional intelligence. So this month, I offer you an excerpt from the introduction. Your feedback is most welcome!
I hope you are enjoying the summer.
All best wishes,
Communication is so much more than words. Probably, we all know that. Words help, of course, because (at best) they point so efficiently to what's happening, and what we want to do about it. But they are only one element of something which encompasses so much more.
When we communicate, even over a minute practicality, it involves all of us. Our whole situation is present when we speak, implied or explicit - everything that's happened up to now, everything the future may bring. It flows into what we say and do, and affects what unfolds from here. Communication asks us to engage with circumstances as we perceive them; and with ourselves, as we respond. It's an extraordinary process of interaction.
Whether we speak or stay silent, we influence the outcome. Our whole situation, our wider environment, is affected by us, moment-by-moment. To communicate means that we mould our lives, and create the world we live in.
So the question, 'Why use Words?' is pretty huge. It implies a multitude of choices. Do we want to engage with a particular person, at a particular time? What will we say, if we do? Will they listen? Is that going to make a difference? How will we interact exactly? Will it even be verbal? (Or will a shrug and a raised eyebrow do the trick?)
Sometimes, words are magical, and just the right ones serve to open up new dimensions and new directions. But sometimes, what's happening around us is so complex and multi-faceted, that it's not easy to reduce to language.
When we try to pinpoint what's happening inside us, this can be truer still. Our inner impressions are often mysterious even to ourselves. Looking for the right words can feel a little like searching for labels, without knowing what the label should have on it. Even if we resort to the most colourful and vivid words we can find (images, metaphors, flights of fancy) they are still only conveying what we mean - they only refer to, or point towards our experience - they are not the experience itself. Which is why we often rely on tone of voice, semi-verbal sighs, grunts and squeals, body-language, actions, gestures - even telepathy! - to get our meaning across.
Words or body language?
There's a commonly cited myth, that ninety-three percent of the messages we give come across nonverbally, mainly through intonation and facial expression alone - reducing the words we speak to a mere seven percent of our communication. This is a thoroughly mistaken reference to research which actually set out to explore something different. What the statistics really uncovered was that words gather most meaning and significance when they are congruent with intonation and facial expression. When this happens, communication has the biggest impact. 
What the research implies is: we can't separate what we say from how we say it. Communication may be about things; but as soon as we put those things into words, they become inseparable from who we are as people.
Communication 'at the edge'
Communication happens at the edge between who we are 'on the inside' and what's happening out there, 'on the outside'. For me, this is the fascinating interface between us as individuals and our environment beyond. What we say or do at any one moment is the (more or less) complicated attempt to mediate between the two. Our words and silences are born here, at the confluence where those inner and outer realities meet.
Unique and universal
Once we turn to look at the 'world within', what we find are human beings. Even in the workplace, however important our role may be, when we communicate, we are more than the role itself; we are a person. People sometimes tell me that their situation is unique - that their role requires a specific type of communication, something that is unique and special to them. Of course, particulars vary, and the demands and challenges we face depend on those. How can we compare the communication of - say - a mother with a small child, with that of a busy executive in business, or a doctor in an emergency ward?
Communication is always possible
Yet while people's contexts differ vastly, the underlying principles of communication are the same. Difficulties arise, not because of a particular role or task, but because the people involved are human. When we understand how communication works, inside and out, we can build connections where we never expected them.
Connection itself is based on congruence. When we are authentic, trust grows. We're congruent and authentic when what happens inside us is mirrored accurately by what we say or do. Then our expressions, gestures, tone and body-language all flow naturally from the same point. This presents us with a challenging task: to make what we say believable - because it's true!
So communication is not really about using the right words at the right time. It means discovering what underpins what we say, and how we say it. If we know the principles, then:
(Good) communication is possible with anyone.
Across any boundary of culture, understanding, role or expectation, we can meet, relate, interact and live in ways we choose. We can communicate (if we choose) fully and authentically, in any situation.
Principles take practice
Of course, applying principles takes practice - it's the essential subject of my book. It could be a lifetime's endeavour to fully understand our interactions. But in the process, we may discover more than we imagined.
To learn about communication is to nourish our natural understanding of who we are as people, and our place in the world.
 My footnote below gives notes and references for the research.
But first, here's an exercise exploring the implicit in communication - in case you would enjoy it!
Exploring what's implicit in any moment opens up the extraordinary possibilities for communication. We begin to see the myriad influences which flow into what we say or do. You may like to try this:
First, take a moment to pause. Get a sense of yourself, as you sit, stand or lie; maybe using phrases, such as, 'here I am,' 'this is me.' Then allow your attention to drop into the present moment like a pebble in a pond. Within the pond - that's everything you are aware of right now - see how the ripples form:
- Notice everything tangible to your senses now (the space around you, sounds, colours, textures, air, temperature...).
- Notice everything that's known in your body (sensations as you sit or stand, aches, pains, tingling of blood, the feel of your pulses, subtle movements...).
- Notice everything that's there but you don't have words for (feelings, images and thoughts about how you are, who you are...).
- Notice how this present moment also encompasses the past (what has led up to this moment, recently, from long ago...).
- Notice how this present moment also foretells its future (what you know, imagine or guess will happen next, and how that knowledge is carried in you just now...).
- Notice how this present moment is full of a network of connections (colleagues, friends, acquaintances, loved ones, people you pass in the park - and their dogs). Allow the rippling connections which surround you to swell, as each one links to other people, situations, or events - each within their own circles of connections.
When you've spent long enough for you, centre yourself back into your own body and your breathing. Just as you are, now, in the present moment - and all it holds and implies.
More on Mehrabian: notes and references:
I'm grateful to Ruud Baanders for opening my eyes to the real value of this research. The oft-cited figures say that ninety-three percent of all communication is nonverbal, and that a listener picks up information primarily from a speaker's tone of voice (thirty-eight percent) and facial expression (fifty-five percent), leaving just seven percent of the speaker's meaning to be derived from the spoken word. This is a mistaken reading of research conducted by Albert Mehrabian in the 1960s. Even Mehrabian himself has declared the figures worthless cited in this form, because the research focused only on a handful of words in a setting expressly designed to introduce ambiguity into a single verbal utterance, delivered out of context. Mehrabian himself highlighted the common misunderstanding of his work in a BBC radio broadcast, in which he said: 'Whenever I hear that misquote or misrepresentation of my findings I cringe, because it should be so obvious to anybody who would use any amount of common sense that that's not a correct statement.'
As Mehrabian pointed out, the research project was small scale. Mehrabian used just nine words to determine the influence of tone of voice and facial expression. Three words indicated liking('honey', 'dear', 'thanks'), three disliking ('brute', 'don't', 'terrible') and three neutrality ('maybe', 'really', 'oh). The speakers were asked to vary how their tone of voice in these three ways, for each set of words. The results showed that the tone expressed the speaker's feelings, more than the words (e.g. 'brute' said withliking could be understood as an endearment). A later experiment with the same words showed that facial expression is even more likely to carry meaning than tone of voice or the word. In other words, as a study of meaning, the research is limited to an instance of contradiction or paradox, and is not typical of communication in general.
A stimulating article outlining Mehrabian's research, and the work of its critics, is that by Herb Oestreich. Oestreich notes that findings of Mehrabian's British contemporaries stress the importance of the interplay between the different elements. These show that while nonverbal expressions give a listener the strongest clues to a speaker's feelings, nonverbal and verbal expressions tend to operate together. Indeed, 'nonverbal clues when combined with verbal clues of almost identical strength have 4.3 times as much impact as the verbal clues.'
References for the above are as follows:
The radio interview was broadcast in 'More or Less', with presenter Tim Harford and Albert Mehrabian, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at UCLA. An Open University co-production for BBC Radio 4, broadcast 1.30pm Friday 14th August 2010.
Oestreich, Herb. 'Let's Dump the 55%, 38%, 7% Rule' published in Transitions, (National Transit Institute), Vol. 7, No. 2 (1999), pp.11-14. Works cited by Ostrich include: Johnson, C. E. 'Buzz'. "The 7%. 38%, 55% Myth." Anchor Point, Vol.8, No. 7, July 1994, pp.32-36; and Pearson, Judith E., "Debunking the 55%, 38%, 7% Rule." The Toastmaster, Vol. 63, No. 11, November 1997, pp. 24-26.
The citation from Oestreich's article appeared in 'The Communication of Inferior and Superior Attitudes by Verbal and Non-verbal Signals,' by Michael Argyle et al, published in British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 9, part 3, September 1970, pp. 222-231.
For the original studies: Mehrabian, Albert, and Ferris, Susan R. "Inference of Attitudes from Nonverbal Communication in Two Channels," Journal of Consulting Psychology, Vol. 31, No. 3, June 1967, pp.248-258. Mehrabian, Albert, and Wiener, Morton. "Decoding of Inconsistent Communications," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 6, No. 1, May 1967, pp.109-114. Mehrabian, Albert. Nonverbal Communication, Aldine Atherton, Inc., 1972. Mehrabian, Albert. Silent Messages, Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1971, particularly pp.42-43.