Monday, 12 October 2015

Here We Go Again

I was at a training session for my voluntary work with vulnerable families the other day. As part of it, we were given a quiz to complete and discuss; and one of the questions was about percentage of  the meaning of communication that was conveyed by words, by tone of voice, and by body language.

Here we go again, I thought. And I was right. I have blogged before about the Mehrabian myth, but in summary, his (limited) studies, if they mean anything, suggest that the oft-quoted percentages apply in very specific contexts:

1 When the words and the non-verbal clues are in clear conflict (saying Yes while shaking one's head, for example); and

2 When talking about feelings or attitudes.

Yet I have heard this presented often, and never with that explanation. Instead, we are told as an absolute that 'In face to face communications, words are only 7% of the meaning.' A quick google search reveals a vast number of pie charts like the one I have created (all copyrighted, of course...)  And indeed, most trainers I have heard explain it have never heard of Albert Mehrabian, and cannot cite a source for the ludicrous figures.

I wish I had had the presence of mind to respond animatedly: "Mais c'est vachement incroyable! Si c'était vrai, vous pourriez tous me comprendre quand je parle français, car les mots ne sont que sept pour cent du sens!" which might have made my point rather effectively: after all, if words are only 7% of the communication, why would they not have understood 93% of my meaning?

Instead, I did offer a little feedback, and ask where they had got this information. To their credit they were open to my comments and genuinely interested. They said they had often heard the figures quoted, and thought they came from the Suzy Lamplugh Trust material they used. I have looked at the Suzy Lamplugh Trust site, and they do not quote the figures there, but do say  'The majority of communication is through body language, a lot through tone of voice and only a little through words.' (Their emphasis).

I find this misrepresentation of Mehrabian's work bad enough in corporate life; but in the context of safeguarding, it is worse. For instance, if it becomes widely accepted as fact, what is to prevent a rapist claiming that, although his victim said No, 93% of her communication was saying Yes?... That cannot be a justification that the Suzy Lamplugh Trust would accept. I will be writing to them about this...

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