…But What’s Really Being Said?

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I have three teenage daughters. Needless to say, we pay for the unlimited text-messaging feature on our family mobile phone contract.

I used to worry about the impact of sending abbreviated bursts of words and symbols on the future of communication, but I’ve been won over by how responsive my daughters are when I send them a text message. The other day, I caught my wife sending a text message to my daughter, who was in the next room, to tell her that dinner was on the table.

Come to think of it, between updates, comments on updates, tweets, chats, texts, and e-mails, my daughters do more writing than I ever did at their age. I’ve started to think that all this technology-abetted communication may be changing something more fundamental about how we communicate than whether or not future generations will be able to string together thoughts that require more than 140 characters to express.

Organizational systems consultants spend a lot of time helping leaders develop their communicative competence. Creating more productive and humane organizations largely depends on the quality of the interactions taking place in conversations and meetings. How well we think together has a lot to do with how well we understand one another. If our primary means of exchange occurs through technology, we might want to revisit the relevance and effectiveness of the standard tools of the trade for organizational systems consultants.

Consider, for example, the often-cited, research conclusions attributed to Albert Mehrabian, about verbal and non-verbal communication. In 1967, Mehrabian conducted a pair of studies focusing on incongruities between what people expressed and their actual attitudes and feelings at the time. Harvey Kaufman, a colleague of mine, likes to illustrate Mehrabian’s conclusions by getting in front of a group and saying, “Yeah, that’s a good idea,” while he smirks and crosses his arms. His tone and body language unmistakably communicate, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” but his words communicate just the opposite. Through his research, Mehrabian estimated that when a speaker has a particular attitude and feeling that drives what she or he is saying, 7 percent of the meaning is conveyed by the words, 38 percent is conveyed by the tone of voice and 55 percent is conveyed by body language. [For more about the over-reach many consultants are guilty of when citing Mehrabian’s research, check out this video.]

Mehrabian’s research is often cited as a caution to organizational leaders that get a preponderance of their work done through e-mails and conference calls. With e-mail, you’re at risk of missing 93 percent of charged communication. With conference calls, you’re still potentially missing over half of what someone really means. Setting aside, for the moment, the risks of misinterpreting the applicability of Mehrabian’s model, it’s worth noting that in 1967, no one sent e-mails or texts.

So I’ve been thinking lately about whether a repeat of Mehrabian’s research would produce the same results. There’s a big generational gap in comfort levels with different modes of communication between executives who are preparing for retirement and the college graduates who have been entering the workforce over the last few years. Consider that the leaders running today’s organizations used to send one another postcards about their vacations. If a 25-year-old in today’s organizations has ever received a postcard, it was most likely a reminder from the dental hygienist.

Given the generational differences in communication modes, I’m wondering whether the so-called, “7 percent-38 percent-55 percent rule” still holds? Is my 15-year-old more adept at deriving meaning when face-to-face data are missing than I am? What about her children’s children? I don’t know how long it takes for evolutionary change to register.

Companies, like Cisco and HP, are busy working on ways to make technology-abetted communication feel more like face-to-face communication. What if they’re solving the wrong problem? If technology is re-wiring the way our brains interact, maybe face-to-face isn’t really the ideal.

Read other posts by Jay G. Cone

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