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Mehrabian madness and the lazy trainer

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If I showed you a pie chart with three slices, labelled 55%, 38% and 7%, the chances are you’d tell me it had something to do with communication. If I pushed you a little bit harder, you might (as a group did recently) tell me it means that when we communicate, 55% of our message is transmitted by the way we look, 38% by the way we sound and 7% by the words we use. You may be nodding as you read this, congratulating yourself on knowing that little statistic.

But think about it for a moment: if that was actually true, what would be the point of subtitles in foreign films? You’d be able to get 93% of the movie just by looking and listening. And why would you bother learning another language? You’d be able to get the vast majority of your message across just by looking and sounding right. This interpretation is such staggering nonsense that I’m constantly amazed that intelligent people are prepared to believe it. Not that I blame them, you understand: I blame the lazy trainer that told them in the first place.

The statistic comes from the work of Albert Mehrabian. He found that when talking about attitudes and feelings, the speaker’s body language tended to count for more than the words used when there was incongruence between them (ie, the words said one thing but the body language said something else). The application of the findings to other areas of communication is, to say the least, disputed and even Mehrabian himself doubts that they’re valid when the topic under discussion is anything other than the speaker’s feelings and attitudes.

So why is it that groups are still given a misleading (or, let’s be honest, a downright wrong) interpretation of the research? I’m afraid to say it’s because some trainers just don’t think about what they’re teaching groups and, for me, that’s a cardinal sin. I love my job and I take it seriously; without wanting to be precious about it, it’s a privilege to help people and make a difference in some small way. It frustrates me that some trainers seem to take their job so lightly as to repeat, parrot-fashion, such palpable rubbish – it’s their obligation to ensure that what they teach is correct. It’s vital that trainers engage with the material they teach and think deeply about it, at least as much as the delegates do, if not more. Anything less than that and they shouldn’t be doing the job.

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