Empathy and Non-Verbal Communication — An Introduction

bolivian-dancerYours Truly, having too much fun with a Bolivian Parade Dancer, Buenos Aires, Argentina

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about how important non-verbal communication is as part of empathy.  It’s very challenging, because, believe it or not, there’s been little research done on it that has declarative answers.  The most famous research that’s often quoted was done in the late ’60s/ early ’70s by Albert Mehrabian, that came up with the 55%/38%/7% ratio, for body language, tone of voice, and actual words spoken.  This rolled over from the 60%/40% previous research on facial vs. vocal components to communication.  Every teacher in the world that’s remotely paying attention knows that students don’t get half of what’s said to them.  And there has been research on proximity for educational information transfer — students who sit closer to the professor tend to do much better than the students in the back.

But in fairness to psychology researchers, whom I do like to pick on, it would be very hard to come up with a definitive answer regarding how much sinks in when you simply tell someone to do something.  It depends on the context of the ‘ask’, the detail in the information, and a whole lot of other factors.  Suffice it to say that just guessing 40% isn’t too bad.

And then there’s the research perspective/v-Meme channel aspect.  Authoritarians are going to want to believe that people listen to them, even if they don’t.  Most network analysis papers in collective intelligence assume perfect transmission, even if this threatens the validity of the whole premise they’re researching.  I’m guessing that all this comes out of the low-empathy levels that the researchers operate in.  So it’s no surprise that no one has pursued what is obviously a difficult question to its illogical end.

One person that has dissected the non-verbal part is empathy research rock star Stephen Porges.  Porges, a Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina, has done research into all sorts of aspects of non-verbal empathetic cues, like prosody.  Prosody is the sing-song tone of voice that we use all the time when we’re trying to calm someone down — but especially when we’re stuck with a crying baby. This goes back to the whole queuing of ‘Empathy as Time Synchronizer‘ theme on a very physical level.  When you’re connected, you have to have ways of syncing emotional and intellectual states.  That’s prosody.

He’s also written the seminal book, The Polyvagal Theory, which presents evidence that the vagus nerves, which run through your throat, and extend down into your stomach, are wired to your face.  What are the implications?  By looking at someone’s face, or even hearing just their voice, you can get a whole body read on what kind of day someone is having.

My hypothesis is that this is the base-level of our empathetic evolutionary heritage, and was a key driver in our turning into a collective species.  Imagine you’re jogging with your buddies across the Siberian tundra on a mammoth hunt. You’ve got to be able to quickly assess whether your best friend John is up to being the hucker-of-spears for the day.  And if his stomach is acting up, you’re going to be able to read it right on his face, or hear it in his voice, instantaneously.  It’s the evolutionary turning point, along with child care, of course, that launched us up the Empathy Pyramid into the world of emotional empathy.

There’s tons more here to unpack.  And for those that find this subject interesting — it really relates to my friend Edwin Rutsch’s Empathy Circles practice — you can watch a short blurb about Stephen Porges below.

Porges gives lots of interviews, many available on Youtube, and the long ones give more detail.  Highly recommended for the aficionado!

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