What you say – more than words

Early in my career I was lucky enough to work with a great mentor and teacher. She assigned projects and just let me do it my way, even if I failed. It was the first time I truly understood about experiential learning.

A Common Misinterpretation

An early training presentations included this big beautiful graph about communication. You’ve probably seen it…….it’s a big pie chart with three percentages:  7-38-55  representing verbal and non-verbal communication.  The 7% representing words, 38% representing tone, and 55% body language. From this I explained that we communicate mostly non-verbally since it represented 93% of what we were communicating.

After the workshop, my mentor pulled me aside and asked “Have you ever watched a foreign film?”

“Sure. I’ve watched a few.”

“Have you ever watched without the english subtitles?”

“I tried once but there was no point. If I didn’t know the words I really had no idea what was going on except that maybe someone was happy or sad or angry.”

She waited.

“Oh. I see. So what you are saying is that the words or the verbal communication IS important.”

She smiled.

The next time we got together she shared with me the original studies that produced those infamous statistics.

It turned out the non-verbal communication elements are particularly important for communicating feelings and attitude, especially when they are incongruent. If our words disagree with our tone or body language, people tend to believe the tone and nonverbal behavior (over the actual words).

The Music in the Message.

Communicating is like a symphony. The words we choose, our body language, our tone and pace, the context of the situation, our expectations, the other person’s expectations, all of these are different instruments of a  symphony.

We need all of the instruments to hear the real music – the real message.

To connect with others we need to be able to recognize all of the instruments that are being played. We need to recognize that we ourselves are carrying with us several hidden instruments (biases, values, expectations.) We also need to recognize the other person is carrying similar instruments.

Why? If we don’t know what instruments are in the symphony, how can we know when something is out of tune?

When something is out of tune (my body language does not match my words) you recognize the incongruence and look at the nonverbal clues to determine the true meaning. You can’t ignore the words, but you may need to dig a bit deeper and isolate an instrument to hear it more clearly and determine what I’m really trying to tell you.

Whether you recognize it or not, the message begins with you.


I invite you to think about one thing that you could change about yourself. One thing that is an obstacle for you – that is keeping you from connecting to others. This could be doing more of something, less of something, stop doing or start doing something.

Even as experienced leaders we all have blind spots and skeletons in our closets.

YOU can choose to let those things keep you from connecting, from becoming an influential leader – or you can take one step today toward becoming an exceptional communicator and connector.

With your very next conversation I hope that you’ll begin to become more aware that the message begins with you.