"20% of communication is actually what we say, and 80% is tone, inflection, and body language."
I'm sure many of you reading this have heard that quote, maybe some of you haven't, but either way, it was essentially the inspiration behind this post. It's so amazing to me that only 20% of what we communicate to each other is what we actually say. We often think of communication as words primarily, but when it comes to genuine face to face communication, there tends to be so much more happening. I was reminded of this recently while doing some dialogue work at a retirement community in Seattle, WA. The work I was doing entailed taking a group of 10-12 residents through my eight week "Full Circle Dialogue Introductory Series." For eight weeks we met once a week, I taught them various dialogue concepts/tools, and we would practice them together.
On the first day while meeting all of the residents, aside from the common hearing and sight impairments of old age that most of them shared, I took note that one of the residents had suffered a stroke recently and struggled significantly with speaking. Initially, I was slightly anxious, thinking to myself, "How is she going to participate? Is she going to enjoy this? How will I know if she's enjoying this?" Having said that, as one week turned into the next, and I got to know each resident, especially this particular one, I came to find that she struggled with speaking, but she did not struggle one bit with expressing herself. It was very inspiring, and served as such a powerful reminder to me that there is so much more to communicating than words. The experience obviously made me think of the quote I started this post with. With her though, I'd take liberties with the percentages to make it a bit more accurate. About 5% of her communication was words, and the remaining 95% was tone, inflection, and body language....and amazingly, I always understood her!
I always understood her? Well how could I without words? We need words to explain complex concepts, but expressing feelings is a whole different story, and she was always able to successfully express to me how she was feeling throughout the entire process. Tone, inflection, and body language are all very effective ways to express how one feels, and when combined, they can be exponentially more powerful than words. After one of our weekly sessions, she combined all three by approaching me, gently grabbing my hands, smiling, looking me in the eyes, and she then spent a minute or two struggling to get out the words "I appreciate you being here" with such a transparently kind tone and inflection. When people can just use words, they tend to not be as intentional with their tone, inflection, and body language, because they don't feel that they need to. Words can be the ultimate short cut in a way, but the lengths that this resident was forced to go to to express herself to me, proved to have been a much more powerful way to communicate than if she just casually said "I appreciate you being here" on her way out the door.
It was interesting to me that at the beginning of the eight week series, I looked at her as if she was impaired because she wasn't able to explain things very well sometimes. Due to her "explanatory difficulties" though, she had become exceptionally gifted at expressing herself through other means still available to her. Many people use the words explain and express interchangeably, but they're fundamentally different as their definitions show below:
Explain: make (an idea, situation, or problem) clear to someone by describing it in more detail or revealing relevant facts or ideas.
Express: Convey (a thought or feeling) in words or by gestures and conduct.
Explaining seems to be more about details and facts, where words work best, but expressing can involve feelings, and though one can express through words alone, gestures and conduct can be forms of expression as well. All of us should be equally balanced in our skills of explanation and expression, but how many of us are indeed balanced? How many of us are always intentional with our words, but come up short with the other conversational qualities? Part of practicing dialogue is slowing down, and becoming more conscious, aware, and mindful of our thoughts and reactions while in conversation. This is a perfect example that this concept extends beyond being mindful of the content of our words, but to the vehicle we are delivering them in. That vehicle is our tone, inflection, and body language, and it accounts for the majority of how our messages are being received in communication.
I hope this post inspires those reading to not wait until their ability to explain dissipates to start deeply expressing themselves. The experience I had with this resident was such a great reminder to me that we as humans come into this world with a vast array of tools in our communication toolbox. We initially tend to use the ones that each of us find easiest, and let the others gather dust until we absolutely have to use them. Don't let your tools gather dust, use them all as often as you can! Rarely do humans connect deeply through words alone, feelings seem to be the universal thread of connection, and the tools of expression, tone, body language and inflection are the best ways to tap into that. Words are of course important, but in closing, as Maya Angelou said, "At the end of the day people won't remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.”