How to work on the phone – when 55% of communication is non-verbal

Now, unlike any time in the past, the vast majority of business conversations are happening remotely. That means, if the communication is a phone call, 55% of your message is lost, right?


The theory that communication is 55% body language, 38% tone of voice and just 7% spoken words is, luckily for us, the most widely misunderstood and misinterpreted bit of psychology you can find. The research actually looks at how we feel about what’s being said, not the words themselves. It’s how we tell the difference between someone leaning forward and saying excitedly, “That’s a great idea!” and someone leaning back, folding their arms and saying sarcastically “That’s a great idea”.

So, when you’re talking on the phone there’s no reason you can’t be just as good a communicator as when you’re face-to-face. Assuming your communication skills are excellent to start with, it’s business as usual.

But what if you’re not a great communicator, and sadly lots of us aren’t, what can you do to up your game? Here are a few tips:

Talking is not the same as communicating

If you work is sales or management, you’ve probably been told you’ve got the ‘gift of the gab’; you’re a good talker. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good communicator. Have you ever delivered a well-rehearsed pitch only to be bombarded by dumb questions at the end? They are not dumb questions – you have failed to communicate effectively. If you don’t get the response you hoped for and expected, it’s your fault, not the other person’s. Reflect on how and what you said and adjust it; include the answers to the dumb questions in the first place.

Exercise curiosity before you exercise judgement

We’re all a bit stressed right now and that can make us edgy and judgemental. Rein it back. If a colleague comes up with, in your opinion, a stupid idea, don’t be quick to react. Before you say, “that’s stupid” try “tell me more about that”. It may still turn out to be a dumb idea, but you’re taken the trouble to understand it.  That makes the other person feel respected and valued, much more likely to accept the rejection of their idea gracefully and more willing to collaborate to find a proposal that works.

Seek reactions

Unless you’re on video conference one thing you can’t get are the non-verbal clues to how the other person feels about what you’re saying. You know the sort of thing, the enthusiastic nodding of heads or exasperated rolling of eyes. Remember, research shows that 55% of how we gauge what someone feels about what we say comes from body language. So, ask them, regularly, how they feel and what they think about what you’re saying. In almost every aspect of communication effective people ask more questions, on the phone that’s more important than ever.

Listen deeply

Not everyone wants to be open about their reaction to what you have to say. A professional Buyer may have been trained to avoid giving a reaction to a seller’s proposal and a junior person unwilling to disagree with a more senior colleague. But there will be clues in the choice of words they use. “That’s interesting” could mean anything from that’s interesting to that’s stupid. So, call it out; ask them why it’s interesting and really listen to what they say. It will soon become clear where they really stand.

Remote communication is, for a while at least, the new normal. There’s great technology to support it, make sure you have the verbal skills to exploit it.