It’s often said that communication is 55% non-verbal, 38% tone, and only 7% the words we speak. This 55/38/7 formula comes from two studies from the 1960s by body language researcher Albert Mehrabian. (Mehrabian & Wiener, 1967 and Mehrabian & Ferris, 1967)
But how accurate is this formula?
The first problem, as you might guess, is that it can’t possibly apply to every situation—there are always exceptions.
It’s also been argued that the formula is based on a limited definition of communication, one that doesn’t take into account the role of context, culture, and relationship.
And how does this apply in the context of digital communication?
But despite its shortcomings, the 55/38/7 rule does provide a useful way to think about the relative importance of different aspects of communication.
And whether it’s true or not that less than 10% of face-to-face communication is based on our words, it’s certainly true that non-verbal communication plays a vital role in our ability to communicate effectively.
This means that when we’re communicating with our clients, our words are actually having a very small impact in comparison to our body language and other nonverbal cues. This is why it’s so important to be aware of the nonverbal communication we’re sending, and to make sure that it’s aligned with the message we’re trying to communicate.
There is a lot of information out there about body language and non-verbal cues we can read from our clients—but what about the signals we send with our own non-verbal communication?
Non-Verbal Communication Between Coaches & Clients
As coaches, we need to be aware.
We need to be aware of the non-verbal cues we’re sending out, as well as the cues our clients are giving off.
We can use non-verbal communication to build rapport, gain trust, and create a safe and open environment for exploration and learning.
At the same time, we need to be aware of the potential pitfalls of non-verbal communication. Our own body language can give off mixed signals, or send out messages that we don’t intend. And we may misinterpret the non-verbal cues of our clients, leading to misunderstandings.
So what are some of the key non-verbal cues that we need to be aware of in coaching?
Eye contact is one of the most important aspects of non-verbal communication. It’s a way of building rapport and trust, and conveying interest, attention, and respect.
In coaching, it’s important to maintain eye contact with our clients. This shows that we’re interested in what they’re saying, and that we respect them as individuals. It also helps to build rapport and trust.
In general, it’s important to maintain eye contact with our clients. However, there are also times when it’s appropriate to break eye contact. For example, if our client is sharing something difficult or painful, we might want to give them the option of breaking eye contact. This can help to create a feeling of safety and trust.
However, it’s important to maintain a relaxed, steady gaze rather than “staring” into a client’s eyes to avoid making them uncomfortable.
Note: in some cultures, eye contact (or lack of eye contact) can have other meanings. It may be seen as confrontational, or as a sign of disrespect. So it’s important to be aware of the cultural context when coaching clients from different cultures.
Our posture can convey a range of messages, from interest and attentiveness to boredom and disinterest. It’s important to be aware of our own posture, as well as the posture of our clients.
When we’re interested and engaged in what someone is saying, we tend to lean forward and maintain an open posture. On the other hand, if we’re bored, disinterested, or mentally “checked out” of the conversation, we might lean back and cross our arms.
It’s also important to be aware of the physical distance between ourselves and our clients. If we’re too close, we might make them feel uncomfortable. On the other hand, if we’re standing too far away, we might come across as distant or uninterested.
Our facial expressions convey a lot of information non-verbally. They can communicate interest, boredom, confusion, agreement, disagreement, and a whole range of other emotions.
In coaching, it’s important to be aware of our own facial expressions, as well as the expressions of our clients. Our facial expressions can give off mixed signals, or send out messages that we don’t intend.
For example, if we’re frowning while a client is talking, they might interpret this as disapproval. On the other hand, if we’re smiling or nodding while they’re talking, they might think we’re agreeing with everything they’re saying, even if we’re not.
Making occasional non-verbal sounds like “mmm” or “mmm-hmm” while a client is speaking can show that we’re interested and engaged in what they’re saying. It can also help to keep the conversation flowing.
On the other hand, if we’re making too many non-verbal noises, it can be distracting and off-putting for our clients. Depending on the context, it might also be interpreted as agreement or approval, even if we’re not actually agreeing with what’s being said. (Or disapproval, if the client interprets the sounds as negative.)
The reverse is true as well, of course—if we’re not making any non-verbal noises, our clients might think we’re not engaged in what they’re saying. This is why experience and intuition are so important in coaching—we need to be able to read our clients non-verbally, and adjust our own behavior accordingly.
Developing non-verbal communication skills is a vital part of becoming a coach. It’s a way of building rapport and trust, and conveying interest, attention, and respect. By being aware of our own non-verbal communication, as well as the non-verbal cues of our clients, we can create more effective coaching relationships.