Body language is often included as part of management development programmes. It’s easy to see why. Telling people that crossed arms indicate resistance to what you are saying seem reasonable based on ‘common sense’. However, as with many favourite topics on training courses, the evidence to support a lot of this stuff is either flimsy or non-existent.
The problem for management development
An excellent April 2013 New Scientist article “Lost in translation: Body language myths and reality“, by Caroline Williams, highlights a number of myths about “reading” body language. Sadly, many of these myths are presented as ‘facts’ in management training and development programmes. The giveaway is that they are presented with no evidence to support them. This lazy repetition of assertions that make the trainer sound insightful or that are simply attractive sound bites is bad practice and could cause damage by perpetuating myths that are either untrue or,at best, half-truths.
For example, how many trainers involved in management development will admit to repeating one of the canards cited in the article rather than checking the evidence first. Maybe you have heard it or used it yourself. The assertion is that 93 per cent of our communication is non-verbal, and only 7 per cent is based on what we actually say. This figure came from research conducted over 40 years ago by Albert Mehrabian, a social psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. He found that if the unspoken message conveyed by tone of voice and facial expression differed from the word being used (for example, saying the word “brute” in a positive tone and with a smile), people tended to believe the non-verbal cues over the word itself. From these experiments Mehrabian calculated that perhaps only 7 per cent of the emotional message comes from the words we use, with 38 per cent coming from tone of voice, and 55 per cent from other non-verbal cues.
The source of the myth
The article explains that Mehrabian has spent much of his time in the past forty years explaining that he never meant this formula to be generalised, and that it only applies to very specific circumstances — when someone is talking about their likes and dislikes. Mehrabian claims that “unless a communicator is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these equations are not applicable” and so the oldest stat in the body language book isn’t quite what it seems. As Williams points out, if we really can understand 93 per cent of what people mean without using words, we don’t need to learn foreign languages and we would never get away with telling a lie.
Needless to say, we believe this is another reason to support the value of evidence-based training as part of management development.