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It’s What You Don’t Say

§ October 5th, 2010 § Filed under communication, small business § Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , § No Comments

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

The last few months I have talked to you about communication. There is one area that we have not discussed. Nonverbal communication is probably one of the most important aspects of communication. We use it for a number of reasons – to add emphasis or clarity, to accompany,  to contradict, or to substitute for the verbal message. The people who interact with us use the clues we transmit to interpret our meaning.

Nonverbal communication can include any information not in words that a speaker uses that might be interpreted by the listener. We normally think of facial expressions and gestures.  But the parts of our communication that do not include words can entail so much more, including eye contact, volume, pitch, amount of personal space, posture, inflection, and even the sounds we make (such as uh, um, hmm, referred to as paralanguage.)

65% of the message is nonverbal

Some researchers report that around 65 percent of the meaning of a message is conveyed nonverbally. Others rank nonverbal closer to 93 percent.  Even at the lower estimate, it is obvious that nonverbal communication is an integral part of our daily communication and without it, meaning can be lost.

I discovered this past weekend that nonverbal communication also serves an important task for memory. I attended my 40th high school reunion. I have a number of friends from those years who I am still close to, and I worked on the planning committee so I had been in contact with others over the last few months. But as the events started on Thursday, I was seeing some people I had not seen in over 40 years.

My task was to work on a PowerPoint presentation that ran continuously throughout the main event. The presentation was primarily a set of individual photos from our senior yearbook. We asked our classmates to send current photos in and I created a slide for each one that transitioned from the senior class photo to the current photo. I had seen what most of these nearly 60 year olds now looked like before I greeted them at the events.

There were a few, however, who had not sent their current photos in, and I found that the ensuing four decades had erased my memory and had created sufficient change in most people that I was unable to identify them. I noticed I wasn’t the only one. Throughout the events, you would hear people ask, “Who is that?”

Nonverbal is memorable

Once introduced, I could usually see the 18 year old I had known in the older face. But the real identifying information came from the nonverbal part of our interactions. The gestures, the tone of voice, the facial expressions, all played a key part in helping me remember my classmates.

One classmate has always had a very dry sense of humor. The deadpan inflection in his voice instantly reminded me of sitting in front of him in English class. One woman has the most piercing blue eyes and she stares intently when she is listening. She has not lost that ability to make people feel that she is paying total attention to what they have to say. Another always had a smile for everyone he met. That smile is still there. Another has always had wonderful posture. In spite of the years, she would still be a model for my mother’s warning to stand up straight.  It was a remarkable experience to revisit these old friends, but without the nonverbal cues, I’m afraid I would not have recognized many of my classmates.

Apparently, the nonverbal part of our message implants in our memories as much as a first kiss, a winning basketball game, or a particularly difficult teacher. I’m particularly glad I have these memories, and thankful to my classmates for the examples.

If these memories last 40 years, imagine how much nonverbal communication affects the people you interact with on a daily basis. Doesn’t it make sense to make sure your unspoken messages are coming across clearly and produce positive memories?