What follows after 7, 38, 55? [FP]

No, this is not a mathematical sequence, but it is a very important concept and directly influences the conclusions we draw when we are following Fundamental Principle 8, observing people.

Our entire lives are based on experiences where we observe actions, behaviors, and results, and then remember and use our conclusions to make choices or decisions.  When we observe people in action we decide how we will interact with them. Are they a Survivor, a Builder, a Complacent, or a Salvager?  Do their behaviors change in different environments and conditions?  How will this affect me? my life? my career? my business?  How will it affect others?

But is this process fair?  Is it a new skill?  Well, we’ve been doing it since we were infants, even if subconsciously, so it’s not new and it’s probably universal, so I guess by definition that makes it fair.  Best to come to grips with it.

In the late 1960s Albert Mehradian, a psychologist at UCLA, published the results of studies (1, 2) where it was observed that the participants attributed their understanding as coming 7% from the verbal content, 38% from tonal content, and 55% from non-verbal content.  While the studies were quite specific (single word cues and dealing only with feelings and attitudes), the results have been widely (over)generalized to indicate how we routinely communicate and reach understanding.  It must be said that these percentages are not universally applicable (even though they get quoted routinely) and they vary with circumstances.  (For instance, in a lecture the primary content is transferred via the lecturer’s words (and slides) and much less from tonal and non-verbal cues.  In Stan Freburg’s original 1951 John and Marsha parody, there are only two words used and content arises solely from tonal cues.)  In general communication when words, tone and non-verbal cues are consistent (they align or are “congruent”) we rather quickly reach a comfortable understanding, certainly about how we “feel” about the person (whether we understood the lecture or not).

Two very interesting observations come from these studies (and others).  The first is

When the words don’t align with the tonal and non-verbal cues (they are “incongruent”) – we immediately place far more credence in the tonal and non-verbal cues in determining our understanding or “feelings” about the person or circumstances.

And it appears this happens regardless of how small their percent contribution is in conveying content.  Thus we have the background for the old business adages, “I hear what you’re saying, but your feet are pointing the other way,” and the time honored “One ‘Aw, s**t’ wipes out all accumulated ‘Atta boy!!s’ ”  This shift to tonal and non-verbal cures is rooted deep in our psyche, and is probably closely related to a survival instinct (no data here, just a gut feeling and my experience in surviving 45+ years in science and business and losing a number of ‘Atta Boy!!s’ along the way).

The second observation is that while the above studies were done in face-to-face communication where the participants were actively participating in communication with each other, my experience has been that this shift to emphasize tonal and non-verbal cues happens even more routinely in passive communication, that is, where we are only by-standers or observers and not directly participating in the discussion.  Again, a survival instinct.

This brings me to Fundamental Principle 9, which has two parts.  First,

What you SAY you will do is very important.  But what you DO is even more important.

The more important second part is,

It is not what you DO when you’re “on stage,” when the limelight is on you and you’re performing for an audience; what is more important is what you DO in the daylight (or in the dark) when you don’t think people are watching you.  But they are.

Let’s reverse the litany of real examples this time and start big.

Dr. Clay Christensen of Harvard Business School and author of the best selling The Innovator’s Dilemma, quotes Andy Grove in his new book, How Will You Measure Your Life?, “To understand a company’s strategy, look at what they actually do rather than what they say they do” (italics mine).  This is an article well worth reading (Businessweek, May 7, 2012) especially as he firmly believes the same logic applies to one’s life.

Of course, even though it is getting tiring, one must mention Enron, WorldCom, and Adelphia among the most egregious violators of saying one thing and doing another.  But the list should be extended to include the less obvious missteps of the clueless and/or reluctant: Kodak, Xerox, and now, apparently, Hewlett-Packard, who could say one thing in their mission statements but couldn’t or can’t figure out what to do.  They are the few who get all the attention and press, which leads me here to point out the score of people and companies that DO ‘get it’ and work tirelessly to add consistent value and never get sufficient recognition.  It seems that “Aw s**t” draws more readership (which then sells more advertising) than “Atta boy!”  As the Teacher said, “This too is meaningless.”  It’s like spectators at a NASCAR race, watching cars drive around in circles at high speed perilously close to one another, waiting for the spectacular occasion when they don’t.  (P.S., I do occasionally watch NASCAR but primarily to see the playing out of strategies.  I much prefer Formula 1, primarily because they have to turn both left and right).

In another arena, just as vexing, are some people of faith, or at least those who profess to be People of Faith – some in the pews and some in the pulpit.  It doesn’t take very many bad apples who don’t get it right (and don’t think they’re being observed) to skew people’s thinking about this barrel as well.

Let’s wrap up with parenting.  I mentioned in an earlier post about an incident years ago when our then 2-year old son’s next door playmate’s first spoken words just happened to be those his mother thought he wasn’t capable of noticing, pronouncing (even though they were just one syllable), or understanding.  True, he didn’t understand them, but he sure understood the reaction he got from other adults.  Infants learn vicariously (by observation) even before they can communicate back.  As adults, we should still practice it.  It’s a Fundamental Principle.

So, for all of us, what follows after 7, 38, 55? Understanding, or at least after repeated observations what we hope is our best understanding of people and situations, enough to make the choices and decisions that affect our lives and the lives of others.  And a good part of that is being able to understand the behaviors of others, whether they’re behaving as a Survivor, Builder, Complacent, or a Salvager.

So, that’s enough about them and why you can and should keep your eyes open in observation.  But, let’s turn the table and ask the question that is rarely asked,

What am I doing, when I think no one’s looking and observing me?


About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
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One Response to What follows after 7, 38, 55? [FP]

  1. Pingback: Behaviors: Practiced or Just Professed? | Road Signs and Blind Spots

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