The 7-38-55 Rule: Reading Between the Lines

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What is the 7-38-55 Rule of communication? What percentage of meaning is contained in words? And how much of communication is really non-verbal?

The 7-38-55 Rule is a concept of communication. It states that seven percent of meaning is communicated through speech, 38 percent through tone of voice, and 55 percent comes from body language.

Read about the 7-38-55 Rule of communication.

The 7-38-55 Rule of Communication

Be on the lookout for non-verbal language cues. The 7-38-55 Rule gives this breakdown for how people communicate:

  • 7 percent of a message comes from words
  • 38 comes from tone
  • 55 comes from body language.

Words alone tell you just a sliver of what your counterpart is really saying. Watch for inconsistencies between words, tone, and body language. We encounter this all the time. 

Think of someone who’s saying pleasant things like “Good morning” or “How are you?” but with a blank expression or in a tone devoid of any warmth. This is why telemarketers are told to smile, even when they’re speaking to people on the phone: the customer can “hear” the friendly expression on the telemarketer’s face. The old maxim is true: “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”

You can use labels to discover the incongruence. If they’re saying all the right things but you doubt their commitment, you can say, “I heard ‘yes,’ but it seems like there was some hesitation there. It’s important that we get this right and that you feel comfortable.” This will make them feel respected, and will make you a trustworthy partner in their eyes.

Watch the Pronouns

You can also observe your counterpart’s speech patterns to see how integral they really are to the decision-making process. Specifically, be on the lookout for their use of pronouns.

The person really in charge seldom says “I” or “me.” Instead, they deflect to third-party pronouns, saying things like, “We may not be able to commit to that” or “We have to assess our position before we can give a definitive answer.” This is because they don’t want to be tied down to a decision.

Conversely, you’re likely dealing with a low-level player if you hear them dropping a lot of first-person pronouns like “I” or “me.”

The 7-38-55 Rule: Reading Between the Lines

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Here's what you'll find in our full Never Split the Difference summary:

  • Lessons learned from years as an FBI hostage negotiator
  • Why negotiation is about emotional appeals, not rational ones
  • The 5 methods for tactical empathy, which gets you what you want by focusing on the other person's feelings

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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