• Communication: How to read what people think and feel

    by  • April 29, 2013 • Communication

    Communication“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” Peter Drucker.

    We all communicate what we think and feel with non-verbal signals. My baby grand-daughter Sine does it very well. At a year-and-a-half she has only a few words. So about 90% of her communication is non-verbal. And she lets us in no doubt about what she means.

    Happy with Sina’s progress. She has new words every time we meet. But she has a long way to go. So I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read that “85% of communication is non-verbal”. Surely she has more than that to learn.

    This claim was made in the Guardian newspaper by Heather McGregor who runs her own executive research business in the UK. Could it be true? No. I could not believe it. So I googled it and to my horror I found that www.six degrees.com agreed with it. Claiming that: “Research has shown that about 85% of human communication is non-verbal. Most of the information we process is not verbal, but sensory—sight, sound, feel and smell.”

    Non-verbal communication Myth

    To my delight I found that the blogger Lesley Camp did not agree with this false claim. I was not alone. And encouraged by his views I searched a little further. To find that it is in fact a myth. A well-known myth. And in reality 85% of communication is not non-verbal at all. And the myth that claims it is true comes from misreading the research of Merhrabian (1967).

    Whose 7%-38%-55% rule says that:

    • 7% of the message about our feelings and attitudes is in words that we say.
    • 38% of the message about our feelings and attitudes is the way we say the words.
    • 55% of the message about our feelings and attitudes is in facial expression.

    He made it clear that he did not intend people to apply this rule to all communications and meaning. Which some people did. And it led them to think it refers to all of the message. Which is a mistake. And not what he intended. As it refers to how we communicate our feeling and our attitude to the facts. And not to the facts, ideas and arguments that are the main part of it.

    How to read non-verbal communication

    Highlighting the use of our non-verbal skills to communicate our feelings and attitudes is very helpful. It holds the key to learning how to read other people’s feelings and attitudes to what they are telling us.

    Knowing how a person feels about what they are saying. And what their attitude to it is can be useful. It tells us what value they put on what they are talking about. And how committed to it they are.

    This so-called soft information is very difficult to hide. It is there for all to see. Yet it is not easy to read. Unless you train yourself to do so.

    The 7%-35%-55% rule holds the key to mastering it. By showing us that we need to attend to the words people use. The way they use those words. And to their facial expression. This is where the clues to their feelings and attitudes lie.

    We can do this at two levels. Our assessment of their overall feeling and attitude to the subject as a whole. Allows us to make a general judgement about what they have to say. Which is very useful.

    The ability to assess their feeling and attitude to particular parts of the communication. Is even more useful. Because it helps us to pinpoint issues they are unsure about. That may be worth probing them on. To help us to un-pick their argument. And test the strength of the case they are making.

    How to learn non-verbal communication skills

    Start by learning to read other people’s non-verbal communication. The more you learn about how they do it the more you can add to your own skills. You will soon see the benefits of this. And your use of non-verbal and your reading of it will begin to add value to one another. They will grow in tandem as your insights increase and your confidence grows.

    The range of non-verbal communication includes: 1. Facial expressions including smiles, frowns, eye movements, various types of looks, pursing of the lips. 2. Hand gestures including pointing, clenching fists, shakes of the hands, raising the hand to the face, ears, head, head scratching, folding the arms, holding the hands out with the palms up. 3. Posture including standing erect, slouching, bending forward, bending back, bending sideward, leaning towards others, leaning away from them. 4. Standing erect, heels together, legs apart, shifting from one foot to another, tapping the toes, bending the legs, clutching the knees. 5. Use of space including moving towards and moving away, standing rigid or moving around, keeping to your own space or moving into others space. 6. Eye contact and eye movements. 7. Touch including touching the table, papers, a pointer, the body, other people’s hands, other people’s chairs. 8. Appearance including dress, neatness and demeanour.

    Don’t let this list intimidate you. You and I do all these things every other day. The idea is to let you see the range of non-verbal behaviours. It is probably wise to focus on one aspect of it at a time. Rather than try to master the all of them at one go.

    This will help you to see how other people use non-verbal communication. And to get good at reading it.  Each of us has our own non-verbal style. Just like we have our own verbal style. By tuning in to it you can learn to read other people’s feelings and attitudes about what they are saying. To give you a more accurate reading of the facts.

    Knowing what you need to do is essential. Acquiring the ability to do so is the hard bit. Even when you have learned to do this you need to practice it again and again. Just like you need to exercise regularly to keep yourself physically fit.









    We can use positive psychology to improve how we live our lives. So I love to share my understanding of it with others. To help them grow and flourish as I have. The posts on this blog set out to do just that. You need a lot of skill to make a relationship a happy one. So I write about relationship skills. Skills you can learn how to use in your own relationship. To keep it in good shape. To solve problems that may arise in it. And to improve the quality of your relationship. To make both of you happy.