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What Is the 7-38-55 Rule?
The 7-38-55 rule is a concept concerning the communication of emotions. The rule states that 7 percent of meaning is communicated through spoken word, 38 percent through tone of voice, and 55 percent through body language. It was developed by psychology professor Albert Mehrabian at the University of California, Los Angeles, who laid out the concept in his 1971 book Silent Messages (1971).
In the years since the publication of Mehrabian’s book, his principles have been applied by others to explain the ways humans communicate their feelings. Former FBI lead hostage negotiator Chris Voss has applied Mehrabian’s research to the field of negotiation research; he postulates that in a business negotiation or informal negotiation process, nonverbal signals and body movements communicate far more than words. Understanding nonverbal communication and reading body language are crucial for anyone trying to improve their negotiation skills and prevent misinterpretation during formal negotiations.
How to Use the 7-38-55 Rule to Negotiate Effectively
The best possible outcome in a face-to-face negotiation is generally a win-win situation with mutual gains for all parties. If you’re only listening to the words spoken during a negotiation without looking for clues in nonverbal channels, you’re likely going to misinterpret what your negotiating partner is communicating, and your chances of finding common ground diminish. Studying the 7-38-55 rule will vastly improve your communication skills and make you better able to read the room during a business negotiation. Here are some tips for applying the 7-38-55 rule in a negotiation context:
- Observe your counterpart’s body language. According to the 7-38-55 rule, 93 percent of meaning is communicated non-verbally. Your tone of voice and body language are much more important than what you’re actually saying. If your counterpart’s body language indicates that they are about to lose their bearings, speak calmly and plainly to soothe them and slow the pace of the negotiation. You should always seek a course of action that encourages the other side to let their guard down. In an effective negotiation, you should try to build a working relationship with your negotiating partner and find ways to defuse tension when possible.
- Look for inconsistencies between spoken words and nonverbal behavior. When you’re at the negotiating table, pay attention to how your counterparts speak and act. Do the words they’re saying match the way they’re carrying themselves? Look at the people who are not talking—what does their body language signal to you? Remember that their spoken words only account for seven percent of their communication and look for nonverbal cues that contradict their words. It’s also important that you make sure your own nonverbal messages are in line with what you are saying. If your facial expressions are pained and you can’t maintain eye contact, you are communicating your insecurity to your counterpart no matter what you say.
- Monitor your counterpart’s speaking patterns. We all have one way of telling the truth. If you can identify how your counterpart looks and sounds when they are being honest with you, you’ll be able to detect any deviations from that pattern that may signal a lie. People who are being dishonest tend to use more words and effort than necessary to communicate their point. Use your listening skills to keep an ear out for such verbosity and gain an upper hand.
- Learn to use different vocal tones. According to the 7-38-55 rule, tone of voice accounts for 38 percent of meaning in communication. Mastering the use of your voice can help you become a better negotiator by improving the delivery of your arguments. In the negotiating room, there are three main tones of voice: Assertive voice is declarative and typically counterproductive. An accommodating voice gently promotes collaboration and should be used most of the time.
- Calibrate your own nonverbal communication. Effective communication during a negotiation, conflict management session, or problem-solving sessions requires the ability to calibrate how you communicate. Tap into your listening skills, assess how your counterpart is feeling, and adjust your nonverbal communication in response. This will communicate far more about your reaction than anything you could say to them. When debating the main points in a negotiation, try to alter your demeanor based on the signals you are receiving from your counterpart. Even if your arguments themselves don’t change, changing your nonverbal messaging can be effective.
The study of nonverbal communication can help you in a variety of settings including international business negotiations, conflict resolution sessions, and even run-of-the-mill social situations. Learning how to apply the 7-38-55 rule will help you better understand the intention and underlying emotions of your negotiating partners and vastly improve your ability to gain the upper hand.
Learn more about negotiation strategies and communication skills from Career FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss. Perfect tactical empathy, develop intentional body language, and get better results every day with the MasterClass All-Access Pass.