By Marcia Naomi Berger, MSW, LCSW
Do you know how little weight your spoken words can have in a relationship? We might think that what
comes out of our mouth is what a listener takes in. Yet studies by Dr. Albert Mehrabian and colleagues1
confirm the truth of the familiar maxim, “It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.”
Here is what they found regarding how much of the message received by the listener is based
on the sender’s words, voice, and body language when people are communicating about their feelings
Spoken words: 7 percent
Voice tone: 38 percent
Body language: 55 percent
Voice tone includes volume and inflection. Examples of body language include eye contact or its
lack, facial expression, body position (such as facing toward or turned away from the other person, arms
open or crossed), and posture. Especially during an important conversation, be aware of your voice
tone, and body language, as well as of the words you say.
Remember to smile when you express appreciation and to look your partner in the eye when
you want to connect. Use a friendly, soft voice if you want to come across as accepting and
compassionate, even when discussing a problem or challenge. When you sit side by side, rather than
across from each other, you help foster a sense of cooperation.
The Gift of Silence
Saying nothing can be the kindest and most effective form of communication, when done sensitively,
especially when your partner most needs to feel heard and understood. Listening with complete
concentration, not injecting your own thoughts and feelings into the moment, can be a treasured gift.
Dr. Larry Meredith, my former boss at San Francisco’s Alcoholism Evaluation and Treatment
Center, eventually became the Director of Health and Human Services for Marin County where I reside.
After he gave a talk and stepped down from the stage, I joined a group surrounding him, waiting for my
turn to say hello.
An irate woman approached him and preceded to loudly criticize him about a matter for which
she viewed him responsible. Did Larry defend himself? Apologize? Repeat back to her what he’d heard
so she’d know he’d been listening? Ask her what she wanted him to do now?
He remained silent while looking into her eyes with a startlingly compassionate expression while
she spoke and after she finished. A few seconds later, her face softened. Regarding him appreciatively,
she said “Thank you” and walked away.
Larry knows how to give everyone the feeling that he values what they have to say, that he
understands, because he genuinely listens and cares.
Listening Can Say More Than Words
Larry’s compassionate listening style serves as a model to apply in marriage. Your spouse may complain
about a job concern, rude driver, or you. What is most wanted, at least at first, is to know that you are
really, fully listening. Often the best thing you can do is to sincerely, silently project this attitude.
Compassionate listening happens naturally when we empathize. It is not a “technique” or
something we can fake. Listening half-heartedly while viewing a smartphone or television screen is
counterproductive. Pretending to listen when our thoughts are elsewhere shows a lack of concern. Pay
attention to yourself. Know when you’re really being fully present to each other.
If a verbal response wanted, the person might request your opinion or advice. If you’re not sure,
you can ask, “Do you want to hear my thoughts?” Your feedback might be helpful—if sought.
Many of us find that venting helps us process our thoughts and feelings. When we are simply
heard, a solution often arises from within, as if by magic. Which is, by the way, what happens in good
The challenge is to avoid injecting our own thoughts and feelings into the conversation when
not asked for them. It can take a conscious effort to notice when we’re tempted to jump in too fast.
Breathe in and out a few times, then return to pure listening.
Certainly, there’s a place for words. Yet most communication, and often the most powerful kind,
is expressed with silence.
1 A. Mehrabian and M. Wiener, “Decoding of Inconsistent Communications,” Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology 6 (1967): 109–14; and A. Mehrabian and S. R. Ferris, “Inference of Attitudes from Nonverbal
Communication in Two Channels,” Journal of Consulting Psychology 31, no. 3 (1967): 248–52. Other pertinent
articles are listed on Mehrabian’s website under “Personality and Communication: Psychological Books and Articles
of Popular Interest,” www.kaaj.com/psych