The Human Side of Communication: Words just a small part of communication

Keep looking for a way to communicate - you really do get better at it.

Editor’s note: this new column is focused on communication as actually exchanged by real people. Technology is someone else’s job; here, technology is considered only in how it affects communication.


New technology creates a lot of unintended consequences that surprise us; as these effects often cause more problems, communication is more difficult. The problems are becoming more frequent and more visible.

For example I, like many of you, have trouble using today’s technology effectively. First, I have difficulty figuring the stuff out. I know I don’t use the cell phone, email or whatever, very effectively. Even a modern telephone seems complicated.

The second reason is that I often feel I haven’t actually communicated, particularly when I’m texting on my cell phone. That’s especially true because the language I use has only a distant relationship to English. That can create difficulties, for example, when a father tries to communicate with his son or daughter.

Many studies, both academic and practical, have shown only a small portion of communication comes through words. That’s a problem. Though the studies vary on percentages, somewhere between 90 per cent and 98.5 per cent of what gets communicated comes through something other than words. Yet texting, as email, is 100 per cent reliant on words. That’s not new; it’s been growing for years. In business, it began about thirty years ago when email became common, taking the place of the telephone.

Most of the meaning we convey is delivered by visible signals we make with our faces, bodies, and gestures. We use things like facial expression, emotion, gestures, and other non-verbal means. They aren’t perfect, but they help.

What one understands from watching a facial expression, is variable from country to country, culture to culture and from ethnic group to ethnic group. There are thousands of variations of interpretation. Sometimes this can cause severe misunderstanding. It’s inefficient, but enough for survival, and that’s what counts.

Our very DNA is involved. We are programmed through it to put our emphasis on sight over other senses, and sight is geared to faces. It’s also focused on things that move — those were potential dangers in earlier times.

This way of seeing, together with a large brain, was the human advantage. It made up for our comparative weakness, our lack of smell-sensitive cells, and our general slowness compared to the other creatures of our world. Without those differences and their capacity to make up for human weaknesses, our ancestors would not have survived. However, none of that contributes to the need for skill at modern communication.

So, when you try to communicate with anyone – your children, your family, business partners or people from the community – don’t feel bad if you don’t know how to do it effectively.  Know that it’s difficult and demands hard work. In fact, it’s scary difficult. We don’t do it well at all, so don’t believe it’s easy.

Keep looking for a way to communicate – you really do get better at it.


Fred Elford is a retired international organization consultant. Clients have ranged from First Nations and municipalities to businesses, from small to multi-national. He can be reached at .