What is Said

By Mark Jansen, Superintendent, Columbus School District, and WSPRA member

Whether you are a person who likes to bet on things or not, the likelihood of some things happening is almost certain. One of those certain-to-happen events has to do with communication. The word “communication” could be interchanged with the word “miscommunication” and have the same odds.

Sometimes what we believe we have said clearly is not understood. Sometimes the words we have spoken have been understood for the face value of those words, but the intent of the words has been missed or misunderstood. One of the most basic concepts taught to students in their years in the Columbus School District is how to communicate for understanding. A corollary to being understood is to understand what others have said.

Students are taught that the words chosen by them are important. They are also taught that words are often no more important than another form of communication that accompanies their words. That other form of communication is called non-verbal communication or non-verbal cues. Non-verbal communication can include gestures, body language, facial expressions, cues and stance. In fact, an often often referenced research finding is called the seven percent – 38 percent – 55 percent rule. Research published in 1971 by Albert Mehrabian indicates that there are three elements in face-to-face communication including the words, tone of voice and body language. The surprising part of the research is that while most people assume their words are the message, the words account for seven to 10 percent of the message. The rest of the face-to-face communication is tone of voice (38 percent) and body language (55 percent).

An example of the discrepancy between words spoken and the underlying meaning of those words is detectable in these words, “I do not have a problem with you.” What if the person saying that he or she didn’t have a problem with you had his or her arms folded, was standing rigid, and avoided eye contact. The true meaning of “I do not have a problem with you!” is that there is a problem. How does the seven percent – 38 percent – 55 percent rule mesh with the earlier statement? In situations where there is a mismatch between words and meaning, the receiver of the communication will accept the most obvious form of communication. In the case of “I do not have a problem with you!” the non-verbal, i.e., 38 percent and 55 percent will trump the literal meaning of the words.

Students are taught that how things are said is as important as what is said. In most face-to-face situations, how things are said is more important than what is said.

Here is one last question to ponder. When you are listening for the purposes of gathering information or to be entertained, are you more likely to feel positive about the time spent listening or if the communicator is smiling or appears detached?

True communication includes speaking and listening. Subtle things like eye contact, facial expression, smiling, and an occasional nod of agreement or a question for clarification tells the communicator that the message is being received and understood as sent. Teaching the intricacies of communication often takes years to imprint on young people. It is worth the effort!

This article appeared in the “School Talk” column of Columbus News, October 2007.  Used with permission.

About the author

The Wisconsin School Public Relations Association (WSPRA) is a professional association representing schools, school districts, educational associations, consulting agencies and organizations. WSPRA is a state affiliate of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA). 4797 HAYES ROAD | SUITE 103 | MADISON, WI 53704 | PHONE: 608-241-0300 | WSPRA@AWSA.ORG