“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” ~ Stephen R. Covey
“Listening is about being present, not just about being quiet.” ~ Krista Tippett
We come into relationships with so many assumptions and ideas about communication. In addition to our worldview, our assumptions and biases, we have also been conditioned to approach communication in particular ways depending on our exposure to communication styles over our lifetime. Our upbringing, along with the cultures and subcultures we have belonged to, impact our approach to communication. It is so easy to come into a relationship with unexpressed expectations and unclear boundaries, which can turn into miscommunication and conflict, and that can even grow over time into disconnection and resentment. All these things impact our ability to genuinely connect with another person.
This module is focused on human connection, and specifically how our communication impacts that connection. We will be tying in many concepts from other modules in this training, as there is much intersection between the ideas.
Although we will touch on non-verbal communication and the mechanics of communication (body language, paraphrasing, etc.) in this module, we won’t be focusing on them. Awareness of these communication dynamics and techniques can certainly support connection, but they are not our focus here.
Misconceptions About Non-Verbal Communication
There is a misnomer circulating around the world that says communication is 93% non-verbal. This statistic is almost akin to an Urban Legend, and it’s amazing how deep into culture it’s gotten. The statistic comes from one main 1967 study by Mehrabian and Wiener. The study was centered around single words (words such as dear, honey, thanks, really, don’t, terrible), tone of voice, and the meaning the hearer of the word put to the intent of the communication. The results of that study have been misinterpreted by the masses over decades.
In a 2020 Psychology Today article called The Body Language Myth, author Tania Luna refers to the 1967 study and shares some comments made by researcher Mehrabian years after the study:
As study co-author Albert Mehrabian later wrote, “When there are inconsistencies between attitudes communicated verbally and posturally, the postural component should dominate in determining the total attitude that is inferred.” In other words, when someone’s words seem to match their nonverbal signals, we’ll likely fully pay attention to the words. It’s only then we suspect that someone’s words don’t match their nonverbal signals that we “listen” to nonverbal communication. (2020) *Posturally refers to our bodily posture.
What the study did say is that congruence between our words and our body posturing is important. What it did not say is that 93% of communication is non-verbal. Intent is very important, and intent shows up both in the words we choose, and in the tone and delivery of those words. It is important to be aware if we are scowling when we are speaking to someone, especially if the words are meant to be encouraging. Does it matter if you cross your arms, put your hands in your pockets, or cross your legs? Crossed arms could indicate a closed attitude, but it could also mean that someone is cold, lacks arm support, or is trying to concentrate (there is a study that links crossing arms and concentration). If you are genuinely engaged with the person, then crossing your arms likely won’t matter all that much.
In the dominant Western culture, it is generally considered to be respectful to look someone in the eyes (rather than say, at our phone) when talking to them. ,. It is also very important to realize that different cultures have different customs around non-verbal communication. In some cultures, some non-verbal forms of communication considered acceptable in Western culture might be considered deeply disrespectful. If our intention is connection, then we will approach connection with people from other cultures with a spirit of humility, seeking to learn from them and pivoting our approach where needed rather than getting stuck on a set of “communication rules.”