Ever had the painful experience of sending (what you thought was) a well-meaning check-in email only to have it blow up in your face when your message was completely misconstrued?
Most of us have been there and know what comes next: Time wasted clearing up the miscommunication and repairing the relationship. All because they misunderstood you, right? While it’s easy to blame the other person, I’ve found that’s rarely accurate.
In almost all cases of communication confusion, the fault isn’t on the recipient; it’s on you.
That’s the bad news. The good news is, once you understand and accept that, it’s completely in your power to prevent in the future. But I’m getting ahead of myself—before we talk about future solutions, let’s take a closer look at what went wrong in the first place.
Back in 1967, UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian published two groundbreaking studies on communication (Decoding of Inconsistent Communications and Inference of Attitudes from Nonverbal Communication in Two Channels) which introduced a then-revolutionary concept: Effective communication isn’t the result of chance, it’s a process.
In other words, communication is a skill, not a gift; and with the right understanding, anyone can learn to communicate more effectively. At the core of this idea was the belief that effective communication had 3 primary components:
This next part’s important: Each of the three elements above contributes to your ability to communicate your intended message at a different level. So when you’re using all three channels (words, tonality, and body language) to communicate a message—say, in a face-to-face meeting—you’re operating at 100% of your capabilities.
But while the three channels all contribute toward that percentage, they are not created equally. So the question is, what’s the relative importance of each one? Before you read the answer, take a moment to come up with your own estimations; I’m curious how accurate your assumptions will be.
Once you’ve made your guess, check out the graph below.
That’s right: Words only contribute 7% of the message, while tonality contributes 38% and body language weighs in at an impressive 55%.
A quick note: Those numbers aren’t an exact science and there’s some debate of how accurate they are. But one thing remains true:
The majority of effective communication is non-verbal.
Let me prove it with an example.
Take the phrase, “It’s great to meet you. I’m really looking forward to working together.” Focusing on the words alone, would you say that’s a positive, negative, or neutral statement?
Most people would agree the statement seems relatively positive, right? Now, imagine that same phrase being spoken by someone making a face like this:
The words are the same, but the message changes dramatically. What initially seemed like a positive statement now probably feels sarcastic, condescending, or negative, right?
Alright, one more example. Imagine the statement was delivered by someone who looked like this:
What initially seemed like a positive message is now almost guaranteed to be positive, especially coupled with a genuinely excited tonality and a firm handshake.
That final example is what I call Congruent Communication: When your words, tonality, and body language are completely aligned behind a singular message.
Congruent Communication allows you to much more effectively deliver your message, dramatically reduces the likelihood it’ll be misunderstood, and subconsciously builds massive trust with those you interact with.
Remember that innocent email I mentioned at the beginning that blew up in your face? Knowing what you know now, what do you think went wrong?
The answer’s probably pretty obvious: When you communicate solely with words (as is the case with texts and emails), you’re only communicating at about 7% efficiency. 7%!
So … What happens to the other 93%? It’s left to the other person to assume or infer your intended message. In other words …
When you fail to provide context, you leave the recipient to fill in the gaps.
And those assumptions? They’re largely driven by two things: Relationship and—to a greater extent—mindset.
So if it’s someone you have a strong relationship with and they happen to be in a good mood, chances are high they’ll end up interpreting your message positively. But if you don’t have an established relationship with them and they’re in a bad mood—say they just left a negative meeting—there’s a good chance they’ll interpret your message negatively (even if that’s not how it was intended).
Of course, this isn’t only applicable for texts, emails, and other word-specific communication platforms. It’s entirely possible to communicate incongruently in a face-to-face meeting. For example: If you enter a meeting in a bad mood, that’s probably going to come across in your communication.
And—worse still—the other person will pick up on this. Maybe not consciously, but their subconscious mind will notice a disconnect; and that realization breaches trusts and damages relationships.
So to get the most out of every interaction—regardless of whether it’s a 6-word text for a 60-minute meeting—you’ve got to make sure you’re communicating as congruently and effectively as possible.
The question is … How?
It starts by understanding one simple truth:
2/3rds of effective, congruent communication is unconscious.
While you likely have consistent, conscious control over the words you speak, your tonality and body language are driven largely by the subconscious mind; or, put another way, by your mindset.
Here’s why that’s important: Say you leave an unproductive meeting in a bad mood. If you don’t take steps to change your mood before entering your next meeting, it doesn’t matter what words you say: Your tonality and body language will likely deliver a negative experience to the other person.
And sure: You may be able to “fake it” for a while. But that rarely lasts. As soon as you stop paying conscious attention to your tonality and mindset—which happens naturally over the course of a meeting—they’ll become reflections of your current (negative) mindset.
So, with that said, let’s talk about 3 ways you can take ownership over your mindset and communication to deliver better experiences and build more meaningful relationships.
Let’s jump back to that email example one more time. Remember, it backfired on you because you left 93% of your intended message up to the recipient to assume. The obvious solution here is to simply eliminate assumptions, right?
How? By switching up your communication.
Too often, our default communication platforms are word-exclusive: Texts, emails, Slack, etc. And don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing wrong with these platforms, but it’s important to understand their purpose.
Word-exclusive platforms are extremely limited in their ability to communicate nuanced messages. Because of this, I highly recommend limiting their use to low-urgency, low-importance messages. For example:
That said, even those messages could likely be communicated even more effectively with tonality and body language; so keep that in mind. However, whenever possible, avoid text-exclusive platforms for situations like …
These more delicate situations—which have a higher likelihood of being misinterpreted—generally benefit from a platform that incorporates more of your communication abilities, such as a phone call or face-to-face meeting.
At the end of the day, it comes down to this:
Use your judgement, and prioritize the health of your relationships over the convenience of quick communication.
After all, if it winds up misinterpreted, you’ll likely spend more time clearing the air than if you’d simply used a more effective channel to begin with.
All of that said, I’ll be the first to admit that you’ll occasionally come across situations where you need to reply on word-exclusive platforms to communicate something quickly and easily. So … What do you do then?
Simply spend an extra couple seconds “over-explaining” the situation to fill in missing context and reduce assumptions. Let me give you a couple examples.
By taking a few moments to explain the context, you can save yourself a number of potential headaches, damaged relationships, and time wasted cleaning up misunderstandings.
I mentioned above that it’s entirely possible to communicate incongruently even if you’re meeting someone face-to-face. This happens when the words you’re saying don’t match the signals your body language or tonality may be sending. For example:
Like it or not, people pick up on these misalignments—even if it’s only subconscious—and these perceptions can poison your relationships. So how do we avoid this?
Simple: Remember, the majority of non-verbal communication is influenced by mindset. By simply taking 2-3 minutes before you walk into a meeting to get yourself in the right frame of mind, you can dramatically improve your ability to deliver a great experience.
So what is the right frame of mind? It likely looks different for each interaction, but here are a few mindsets you might consider tapping into:
As for how to get into those mindsets, there are a number of effective strategies. For example: Box breathing, short meditations, or writing out your Agenda-in-Mind for the upcoming meeting. At the end of the day, it’s about finding what works for you.
That said, we at Mindmaven do have a few recommendations that have been successful for our clients. I’ve compiled them into an easy-to-reference Meeting Mindset Checklist. If you feel that’d be valuable for you, you can download it for free below:
Alright, before we wrap this up, I want to tie it all together. Is Congruent Communication really all that important? I say yes. Why? Let me explain.
At the end of the day, the majority of the breakthrough opportunities we need to take our businesses to the next level come from our relationships. But the likelihood of generating those opportunities is driven by one thing: The quality of our relationships.
So, what determines that quality? One factor, above all else: Trust. And what’s the most effective way to build trust? You guessed it: Congruent communication. Finally, how can you ensure you’re communicating congruently? With intention and mindset.
All of that to say: I hope you can see that congruent communication isn’t just a “nice to have” when it comes to your business and your relationships; it’s a “must-have.” There’s no way around it.
I don’t want this to be another “good idea” you file away for later use. Here at Mindmaven, we pride ourselves on being pragmatic and actionable; so I’d like to leave you with a challenge:
Download our Meeting Mindset Checklist, and run it before each meeting for the next 3 days. Pay conscious attention to the impact it makes on others; not just on the productivity on your meetings, but on the relationship value you’re able to contribute.
I think 3 days will be all it takes before you’re hooked, and there’s no going back.
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