Years ago I uncovered a definition of communication that I doubt would appear in Wikipedia. I like it because of its simplicity as well as its inherent complexity.

Communication is behavior that transmits meaning from one person to another person

This definition tells us that we cannot communicate without behavior. We must do something to communicate. It also tells us that communication does not happen unless meaning is transmitted. Of course what I mean and what you think I mean pose two entirely different things. In fact, I can name at least six messages in any conversation.

• What you Mean to say
• What you Actually say
• What the other person Hears
• What the other person Thinks he/she hears
• What the other person Says
• What you Think the other person says

No wonder we encounter so many sticky communication problems. To make matters worse, did you know that our minds think four times faster than the average person can speak? Even when we try to listen, our thinking minds fly many miles an hour in another direction. Harnessing all that thinking energy takes discipline, focus, and concentration. In today's world where most of us multi-task our way through life, stopping to really hear another person seems impossible. As we examine communication, you will see how important it is to stop doing whatever it is you are doing, to set your antenna in the direction of the speaker, and to assign your thinking mind the job of listening. Besides turning off our cell phones, however, how can we do this? One way is to pay close attention to the nonverbal cues.

Verbal and Nonverbal Communication
According to landmark research done by Albert Mehrabian at UCLA in the 1960’s, communication comprises three distinct parts: Visual, Vocal, and Verbal. Studying massive numbers of people over a series of years, he found that these three components impact our messages differently. Visual communication gives the message more power than vocal communication, and vocal gives the message more power than verbal. If you skip, ignore or shortchange one of these three components, your message suffers.

By visual communication we mean all the messages you get through the eyes: gestures, facial expressions, eye contact, personal appearance. Dr. Mehrabian found that 55 percent of communication comes through visual messages.
By vocal communication we mean all the non-word sounds we make (including silence): um’s, sighs, laughs, chuckles, grunts, groans. Vocal also includes articulation, modulation, pacing. Dr. Mehrabian found that 38 percent of communication comes through the ears.

By verbal communication we mean the words or the content of the message. Only seven percent of communication comes through the content.

In one of my workshops someone said, "But, that's not right! We should pay more attention to the words than we do the actions." Perhaps we should. But, do we? Ask any politician or anyone in the broadcast industry. They will confirm the importance of visual and vocal (i.e., nonverbal) communication. There are people who make a living preparing defendants for jury trials. They do not tell them what to say but how to say it and how to "appear." When we talk about nonverbal communication, we mean the combination of the visual and vocal messages (93 percent). Confident communicators hear the words, and they heed the nonverbal cues. From those cues they discover the feelings behind the words.

What nonverbal cues do you notice in this sticky situation?
Larry is walks into a meeting with the top executives in his firm. He has been invited to demonstrate an innovative computer software system that the firm is interested in purchasing.

He hears the buzz of conversation before he opens the door. Once he enters the room, conversation stops. A few people clear their throats. People look around, but not at Larry. The CEO, says, “Oh, yes, Larry. Thanks for coming.” He turns to the group and says, “Larry is going to show us that whiz bang computer system that will save purchasing time.”

Larry walks up to the PowerPoint projector where he plugs in his laptop. He hears the shuffle of paper and a few whispers. Two members of the group are frowning in his direction, and they have their arms crossed. The CEO is watching him but with a slight scowl.

Larry starts with a brief introduction of the system. Two people yawn. He talks about how user-friendly the system is and what it can accomplish. He continues to talk for several minutes, going through his pre-planned presentation. After about 20 minutes, the CEO interrupts him. “Thank you, Larry. That’s enough for now.”
Larry asks if there are any questions. No one speaks. He packs up his laptop and departs.

How might you interpret the nonverbal messages Larry received from the group?

• The fact that conversation stopped when Larry walked in suggests the group felt interrupted by his presence.
• The clearing of throats and lack of eye contact tell Larry that his presentation might have been a surprise to the group. They may be wondering why he’s there.
• While listening to the whispers and the shuffling of papers, Larry should recognize the signals to quickly get on with his presentation.
• Yawns from members suggest a lack of interest in what is being said.
• Frowns, scowls, and crossed arms suggest to Larry that there might be a power issue going on. Perhaps some people are opposed to this system.
• The way the CEO introduced him—the tone of his voice might suggest to Larry that he is “apologizing” for his presence or doing something he feels compelled to do but doesn’t want to do.

How might Larry respond to the cues he noticed?

• Once the CEO introduced Larry, he should quickly ask if this is the best time for the presentation. Even the CEO seemed to have forgotten he was coming.
• If Larry gets the go-ahead, he should provide a quick overview of the system’s benefits and encourage the group to ask questions immediately. He needs to check out the nonverbal cues he’s seeing and hearing. Are people bored? Are people annoyed? Are people interested?
• When Larry notices people yawning or losing interest in his presentation, he should wrap it up with the major points.
• Larry should ask the group for bottom-line issues that trouble them about the system. Some seem bored and ready to make a decision without a presentation. That could mean that Larry could simply field questions without showing his full PowerPoint presentation. He needs to learn from the group how to proceed.

Nonverbal cues are clues to communication. They are not definite. Once during a jury trial one woman scowled the entire trial. She crossed her arms, sighed, and looked genuinely unhappy. The defendant’s lawyer gave her lots of attention, fearing her tightly closed scowls were directed at him and what he was saying. After the defendant won the case, that woman hugged her and said, “Honey, I’ve been praying for you!” All those pinched, closed eyes that looked like scowls were prayers. We can never assume a nonverbal to be true, what we must do is raise our antenna and check them out.

Most of us are so programmed to communicate in the way we’ve planned that we do not pay attention to the nonverbal cues. When we set our antennae toward our speakers and really pay attention to the nonverbal cues, we will have fewer communication mishaps.

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And learn more about managing sticky situations like the one Larry faced by reading Managing Sticky Situations at Work: Communication Secrets for Success in the Workplace. Get your free chapter by signing up at

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Joan Curtis is a communications coach, author and speaker. She recently published the book, Managing Sticky Situations at Work: Communication Secrets for Success in the Workplace, published by Praeger Press. You can find her at or