The structure of communication

Leadership at the peak

By George W Nyabadza

THE way we communicate lands us in a lot of trouble. Many people believe that communication is just in the words that are said but if you

reflect on your most recent conversations you will soon discover that this is not so. Recall a recent pleasant conversation you had with someone close to you – a friend, spouse or a colleague at work? Do you remember the words that were spoken by yourself and your partner? Try and write them down, as much of them as you recollect. I suggest that you take a few minutes to do this little exercise as it will demonstrate to you the true structure of communication.



I would like to bet that despite this having been a good conversation you hardly remember all the words that were spoken. Probably a good recall would be around 75% to 80%.



Words in any conversation play a really low role in the structure of the total communication. How about the tone of voice that was used during the conversation, your tone and your partner’s?


You will notice that you have a much better recall of the tone of voice used than the words actually used. In fact, as you recall the tone of voice you may even recall some of the words you had forgotten. If you had remembered more words than I suggested by carefully reflecting on the memory again you may notice that there is a significant association between most of the words and the tone of voice used. There is a lot more weight in all our communication that is attributed to the tone of voice than the actual words spoken.


I remember as I was growing up that my mother had a way with her tone of voice that would clearly indicate to me that I had crossed the line. I bet even if you know the barest of Shona that you will get the tone in her words Iwe mhani Wangi! Wangirayi is my first name.


Now those same words could have been said in a nice gentle manner and I am pretty sure I would have jumped back and forth over that invisible line without any fear at all. But when she screamed Iwe mhani Wangi! it was time to become invisible as fast as I could, not without much success I must add. So the tone of voice we use plays a much more significant role in the structure of communication than the words and the two of them make up close to 45% of the whole structure.


The most influential role in the structure of communication is taken by body language. When my mother did her screaming act and supported that with a raised hand (usually carrying some kitchen utensil weapon) there was no mistaking the communication. In that brief moment of time I am certain she forgot I was her beloved second-born and was prepared to commit the most heinous of murders.


Words (7%) tone of voice (38%), body language (55%) is the structure of communication.


How about recalling a particularly nasty conversation you recently had with a loved one, someone really close to you. What was the structure of that communication? Can you see how by keeping in mind the three dimensions and working consciously with them you could have minimised the impact of the words spoken or even dramatised them further depending of course on what your intention was?


There is a saying that goes “words build up or destroy” which is not quite true. It should rather be “effective communication builds up or destroys”, effectiveness being the ability to manage each of the three dimensions.


I hope you appreciate that I can say that I hate you but leave you in no doubt that I love you instead just by the way I modulate my tone of voice and use of my body language.