NextGen Professional

Communication: Beyond the 7-38-55 Rule

If you have ever attended a leadership training program, it is likely that during the “Effective Communication” module, Dr. Albert Mehrabian’s 7-38-55 rule was shared. It claims that while communicating, our actual words account for only 7%, while tone (38%) and body language (55%) account for a combined 93%. I understand and appreciate the suggestion; however, it is the assigned percentages that I don’t quite agree with as it leaves no room for two critical aspects of how we communicate:

1.    Listening

2.    Ego State of each participant


1. Listening

Why is listening so hard to do? We all know it is important. We have read (and perhaps even referenced) quotes about listening:

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. – Steven Covey

We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen twice as much as we speak. – Epictetus

We know we should listen to others as best as we can. And we sure like when others listen to us, don’t we? We also have an endless supply of coaches, communication experts, books, and YouTube videos to tell us how to listen effectively. So, why is listening so hard to do?



We think faster than others speak. Scientists have tried to apply numbers to that statement; I’ve read that we think at a rate of 700 words per minute versus speaking at 150 words per minute. A well-known TV therapist once said it was 120 words spoken and 1200 words thought. Numbers aside, scientists do align on the key principle; we think much faster than others speak. That means, we can add hundreds of words per minute to what the other person is saying.


Existing beliefs:

American psychologist Dr. Alia Crum stated there are five (5) factors that determine our beliefs: culture, upbringing, influential others, current perspective, and our conscious mind. Imagine that we take a 72-year-old from Alabama and a 27-year-old from New York, and sit them together to watch the exact same Presidential State-of-the-Union address; what are the odds that they are going to “hear” the same message?

Back to the 7-38-55 rule; the President is saying the same words, using the same tone, and offering the same non-verbal cues; yet, the 72-year-old Alabamian and the 27-year-old New Yorker are quite likely to report two very different messages. With every passing minute during the President’s speech, each viewer is adding their own beliefs.


Tool 1: Reflective Listening

Step 1: Listen with the intent to understand.

Step 2: Repeat back what you heard in your own words.

You’ll often hear Life Coaches practice Reflective Listening with statements that start So what I’m hearing is... My typical wording is Let me see if I understand, and please correct me where I’m wrong.

Reflective Listening is effective for several reasons: (1) it ensures that both parties are on the same page; (2), it allows each party the opportunity to correct the other; and (3), it makes focusing easier as you know at some point you will have to offer a summary.

With respect to effective communication, Reflective Listening is necessary but it is not sufficient. It means nothing if we don’t get the next part right!


2. Ego State of each participant

Back in the 1950’s, Canadian psychotherapist Eric Berne developed a theory he called Transactional Analysis. Dr. Berne extended Freud’s psychoanalytical theory on how childhood experiences impact our lives. Transactional Analysis (“TA”) claims that we operate from one of three Ego States: Adult; Parent; or, Child (with the Parent and Child States each being subdivided).

The Ego State that each individual shows up to (and maintains during) the conversation may have the biggest impact of all as it ultimately dictates the words, tone, and body language we use.  A controlling and autocratic Critical Parent is quite likely to use different words, tone, and body language than an Adaptive Child would. Similarly, the argumentative, self-absorbed Rebellious Child will come across different than the supportive, protective Nurturing Parent.

Transactional Analysis suggests that Adult-to-Adult communication leads to the most healthy and effective communication.  Makes sense when considering the Adult Ego State’s characteristics include: mature, curious, present, controlled, calm, and open-minded.


Example: Reflective Listening & Transactional Analysis

Imagine that you are my boss, and you are providing me instructions for a task we need to complete. I am sitting attentively, nodding my head as you speak, asking a question or two along the way, showing interest and enthusiasm. You end with the question “Do you understand?”, to which I practice reflective listening and offer my understanding of what needs to be done.  At that moment you realize that my understanding is not even close to what you need done! The success of this conversation depends on what Ego State you enter after hearing my response.  Let’s look at some potential next comments you could make:

Critical Parent – “Mike, you weren’t even listening to me, were you?”

Nurturing Parent – “So you don’t understand; ok, I’ll just do it myself.”

Rebellious Child – “Geez Mike, you either need to clean out your ears or you’re just getting too old to listen!”

Adult – “That’s not quite right Mike; all good, let me try and explain this another way.”


Tool 2: What Parts of me are present in this conversation?

During a conversation, monitor yourself for what Ego State you are in. As challenging and disruptive as that may seem, please remember that we think much faster than the other person speaks (it is possible to do both, just takes some practice!).

If you notice that you were triggered and slipped to a non-Adult Ego State, jump back into Adult and re-state your comment (an apology may be required first). Over time, the duration between exiting-and-returning to the Adult Ego State will become shorter-and-shorter.


Tool 3: Self-Reflection

When a problem is disturbing you, don’t ask, “What should I do about it?”; ask, “What part of me is being disturbed by this?”

The above quote is from the book The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer.

I use this tool often, please expect it to be uncomfortable at times!  After a conversation I will ask myself a series of questions, such as:

–      How did I do in that conversation?

–      What Ego State(s) did I enter?

–      What triggered me and how did I respond?

–      Why did that trigger me?

–      What did I do well?

–      How could I improve next time?

For those of you with an “Inner Critic”, you are likely to hear some ugly answers. My Critic has called me idiot and loser more times than I can count.  Nevertheless, I’ve experienced encouraging progress in that area due to three specific actions:

  1. I request my Critic’s opinion on how I handled myself.
  2. Accept that it is just trying to help; it has a Positive Intention.
  3. Show appreciation for its honest feedback.

I find that I am less easily triggered, it is much easier to stay present, and my Critic is more of an Advisor now (although not always, sometimes it feels I am still “an idiot”).


Tool 4: Stay Curious

Curiosity is the first domino in a row of positive Adult characteristics: calm, confident, clarity, present, mature, open-minded, etc. If you find you’re not curious, then you have quite likely slipped into a non-Adult Ego State. Stay curious when speaking with others and stay curious when engaging in self-reflection. Curiosity is a game changer!

Best wishes,