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It's Not What You Say, But How You Say It

February 7, 2019 Joe Mechlinski

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How you speak can affect the meaning of the words you're saying. This is important in all of our interpersonal relations, and it is important when communicating what you feel and what you really want to say, at work. 

Let me provide a little background here. In the 1950s, Dr. Albert Mehrabian (now an emeritus professor of psychology at UCLA) studied the elements that form the basis of communication. He determined that only 7 percent of communication is about the actual words spoken. In fact, 38 percent is about voice quality—pitch, tone, volume, rhythm, and frequency. The most significant element of communication is body language. It accounts for 55 percent of communication. Overall, 93 percent of communication isn’t about what you say, but how you say it.

Try this exercise. Repeat the following sentences, while emphasizing the italicized words. You will notice that although the words are the same, each sentence has a completely different meaning.

I didn’t steal her money. (It wasn’t me.) 

I didn’t steal her money. (I took money from her, but I don’t consider it stolen.)

I didn’t steal her money. (I stole money, but not from her.)

I didn’t steal her money. (I took something from her, but it wasn’t money.)

In the workplace, we believe email is the fastest, most efficient system to communicate. The reality is that it’s often difficult to interpret the sender’s intention. Was the person genuinely angry, or speaking sarcastically? It’s symbolic of the workplace environments we’ve created. We leave no room for feelings and connecting with our coworkers and the work at hand. It’s difficult to work with purpose when feelings are suppressed throughout the day.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place,” the playwright George Bernard Shaw said. This is especially true at work. 

An engaged workplace is one where people actually communicate in a way that's clear. 

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