How We Really Communicate:
Subtle Social Signals

Social-SignalsHow much do you pay attention to social signals while having a conversation? I’m curious about how we humans seem to unconsciously communicate with one another. Even before we say words, we often intuit how others feel. Scientists call these “honest social signals.” I recently picked up a book about this and am intrigued about these social signals we send to each other. (Honest Signals, by Alex Pentland, MIT Press, 2010.)

If you’ve ever been in a discussion that ended poorly you know how quickly communication can go wrong. The problem lies in the fact that so much of our signaling is unconscious. In some ways, we’ve known this for a long time.

Albert Mehrabian, currently Professor Emeritus of Psychology, UCLA, published his findings in 1971 on the relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages, also known as the 7%-38%-55% Rule, for the relative impact of words, tone of voice, and body language when speaking. Although frequently misinterpreted, Mehrabian’s rule applies to how we decide to like a person based on their communication:

“Total Liking = [is based on] 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking. Please note that this and other equations regarding relative importance of verbal and nonverbal messages were derived from experiments dealing with communications of feelings and attitudes (i.e., like–dislike).”

Non-verbal communication is apparently more pervasive than previously thought. We understand that messages are conveyed by tone of voice, facial expressions, eye contact, and even the way one dresses. Now there is new research aided by sensing technology (sociometers) that points to key signaling behaviors through activity levels, mimicry, synchrony levels, and distance measurements.

The thing is, we may not perceive social signals unless we’re looking for them. They provide a very effective window into a person’s intentions, goals, and values. But most of them happen naturally without our awareness.

So it leaves me wondering if, when we are more aware of social signals, we can predict the outcomes of communications such as those involved in negotiations, say, for example, with a business pitch? According to Pentland in his book, yes.

“By paying careful attention to the pattern of signaling within a social network, we can harvest tacit knowledge that is spread across all of the individual members of the network.”

Pentland and the Human Dynamics Lab at MIT have concluded that learning to recognize social signals can help us influence negotiations, group decision making and project management. I’ll discuss how in the next few blog posts.

In the meantime, I’m asking you if this makes sense to you, and more importantly, how well you tune into some of the social signals during communication. Most of us have been educated to place great importance on words and logic, rather than subtle cues.

What do you think? I’d love to hear from you. You can contact me here and on LinkedIn.

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