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It's only words

Published: Mar 27 , 2020
Author: David Bannister

As I sit here in the third week of self-isolation – the first two having been forced on me because I holidayed for three weeks in Thailand – I have reflected on how important social interaction is to us all.  I can’t cuddle my new grandson or play games with my other grandchildren and I am maintaining social distance from neighbours although, to be honest where one of them is concerned that represents no change from the norm!

I suppose that we may consider ourselves lucky that in the days of email, social media and Skype, we are not as isolated as the transatlantic rowers who now seem to crowd my timeline with advice based on their solitary experiences.  I gave some thought, though, to what this might mean for negotiators.  For negotiation still goes on in this strange new world we now occupy.  The business my wife works for has been contracting with the government to help with projects associated with its response to COVID-19 while their huge office in London’s docklands is deserted.  Issues have to be addressed and agreements have to be reached, often in very short timescales.  I was reminded recently in writing a piece for a client about the work in the 1970s of Professor Albert Mehrabian who suggested that the fact of removing the element of direct interaction between humans when they communicate presents a new problem.  Mehrabian postulated that communication was about the words we use, the voice and tone with which we say them and the body language which accompanies them.  He suggested the following ratio:

Words 7%

Voice and tone 38% and

Body language 55% 

These figures have been contested many times and the good professor himself had cause to modify and suggest that it depended, as everything does, on the situation.  Nevertheless, I recall watching one of my own consulting team years ago proving the point to a group on a training programme.  She stood on a chair and told her audience of about thirty students to do what she told them to do.  She then put her index finger on her head and said: “Put your finger on your head” they did so.  She gave several more of these commands and her actions were followed carefully by the students.  Then she told them to put their finger on their nose while she put hers on her chin.  About 8 out of 10 of the class ignored what she had clearly told them to do and also reached for their chin! The moral of this story?  Gestures are so important to our understanding of what we are using words to discuss.  Mehrabian suggested that we will usually believe what we see more than what we hear.  Not convinced?  Try to imagine someone telling you they would trust you with absolutely anything while not maintaining any eye contact.  Do you believe the words or the eyes?  Yes, me too.

When life was “normal” we at Scotwork always told people that as negotiators they had to work hard to ensure understanding of everything they say and also they had to strive to ensure absolute comprehension of what others say to them.  Now, it is even more important than ever – we will be under pressure to move things on quickly in the face of the dynamics of this new reality.   We will make mistakes because we have had part of the process of comprehension removed from us.  Mistakes take time to rectify and time is something we have not got in abundance especially for those who are on the “front line”.  So remember, a little time spent testing understanding, clarifying and reflecting now, even under real pressure, may save vital time in the future.

Be well and safe.



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David Bannister
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