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Updated: Mar 29, 2023

communication; listening; non-verbal-communication; talking; communicating

When it comes to communication, most of us have heard of the “7% rule”.

It’s the theory that only 7% of our communication is about our spoken words and the other 93% is made up of a combination of body language (55%) and tone of voice (38%).

In respect of adults, it is widely understood now that the theory isn’t absolute, partly because of the new and complex ways we communicate using technology, and partly because as adults, we are terribly good at appearing to be sincere – looking and sounding like we mean something, even if we don’t. When we’re talking about communicating with children, I personally believe that the 7% rule is fairly accurate.

Of all the basic communication options available to us, verbalisation (talking) is the last skill we learn. We fathom the world through our other senses initially, understanding who our early attachment figures – our ‘safe’ people - are through touch, taste, sound and smell.

We’ve all watched a screaming baby being handed around a room full of very-experienced-with-this-sort-of-thing people but refusing to settle until they’re handed back to mum or dad, at which point they will settle almost instantly. That baby can’t talk, it’s communicating via the only method available to it…. Bloodcurdling screaming; and the baby’s reassurance that it has returned to a ‘safe’ person comes from its ability to recognise familiar sounds, smells and environments. Only if the person sounds right, feels right and smells right will the baby feel reassured and safe enough to switch off the bloodcurdling internal safeguarding device and settle down.

communication; listening; non-verbal-communication; talking; communicating

It’s a very successful and relatively easy-to-understand method by which the baby can ensure its own basic needs are met…. If I need feeding, changing, cuddling, am in pain, frightened or just plain cheesed off, I cry. When I cry, someone comes, and even if only by process of elimination, eventually, my need will be met. I will communicate that the correct need has been met by stopping crying. It’s a genius system!

Then we introduce words; and words instantly replace most of our instinctive communication with our children. We adults insist that young children “use words” or “ask nicely” instead of grunting and pointing at what they want, because it is considered polite and the development of their vocabulary is important. We forget, very quickly, how reliant our babies were on communicating non-verbally with us when they become children with the ability to verbalise.

It seems to be accepted that the average 4 -5 year old has a vocabulary of around 4,500 words compared to an average adult vocabulary size of 20,000 – 30,000 words and yet time and again adults ask children, “Are you listening to me?” When what they mean is “Do you understand?” This may seem like semantic pedantry but it’s important. That child has only roughly 25% of the vocabulary available to them that the adult does and yet we expect them to understand 100% of what we are saying to them. And “saying” is the operative word here…

We spend infinite amounts of time actively teaching our children to speak and increasing their vocabulary, yet we spend precious little time teaching them to listen. We take it for granted that they will know how to listen, then we complain and become frustrated when they appear not to be listening! The truth is, they ARE listening. It just looks different because children, particularly young children, filter the information being given to them. Their ability to understand the words being spoken to them may only make up 25% or thereabouts of their understanding of what you are saying to them, remember, so the other 75% or so has to come from non-verbal communication. Children are ‘checking it out’ on levels we don’t even consider.

If you imagine that the picture below represents the listening process from the child’s perspective, and that the symbols in red or green represent the importance of the spoken word; the symbols in orange represent the importance of what else is happening in the environment; the symbols in pink represent the importance of the tone of your voice; the symbols in blue represent the importance of your body language and posture; and the symbols in yellow represent the importance of something shiny that just caught the child’s eye, it’s not difficult to see that what we say is the least important part of our communication as far as the child is concerned!

communication; listening; non-verbal-communication; talking; communicating

They are far too busy assessing the non-verbal cues; they are deciding first and foremost, “Am I safe?” Then, “Does this person seem angry or upset with me?” If the answers are yes and no respectively, the child is unlikely to give your verbal communication very much attention at all, at best, they’ll pluck out key words to confirm (or not) their initial ‘risk assessment’. If the answers to the questions are yes and yes respectively, the child is more likely to pay attention to the verbal content – this is why parents spend vast amounts of time asking why their children will only do as they’ve been asked when the parent raises their voice or loses their temper. It’s because the change in our tone of voice represents a shift in the child’s ability to ‘remain safe’ in their inaction. It’s a signal to them that this needs to be taken seriously and there will likely be a consequence of some kind for not doing so. It’s as though the civilised request and level tone of voice is white noise and shouting is the only way to interrupt it and ‘get through’.

So... If you want to know if a child has understood you, don’t ask them if they’ve listened to you because listening is not a skill they’ve likely been taught. Instead, spend some time asking whether or not you’ve made yourself understood. Make sure that your facial expression and your tone of voice match the message you’re trying to deliver.

If you’re cross about something, not looking or sounding cross is not helpful to the child, they’re going to weigh up the non-verbal cues, decide they are safe and disengage from the conversation. They’ll nod while you’re talking to them about their behaviour, say sorry beautifully when you tell them to, then walk away and do exactly the same thing again. The adult will get frustrated that the child “Isn’t listening” and a viscous cycle of miscommunication begins until such time as the adult loses the plot, shouts and screams at the child, then blames the child for making them shout instead of listening the first time….

Don’t ask the child, “Are you listening to me?” Ask yourself, “Am I going to be understood?” The onus is on the adults to communicate in ways that children understand and if the only method of communication for a four-year-old has been non-verbal for at least half its life, why would we expect that four-year-old to be able to successfully communicate verbally with us, adults with a lifetime’s practice with words? It’s OUR primary method of communication, not theirs.

communication; listening; non-verbal-communication; talking; communicating

Top Tips!

  1. Remember that speech is the adult’s primary communication method, not the child’s.

  2. Be mindful of your tone of voice

  3. Be aware of your facial expression and body language

  4. It’s OUR responsibility to speak their language, not their responsibility to speak ours.

  5. Don’t ask “Are you listening?” Do ask, “Have you understood?”

communication; listening; non-verbal-communication; talking; communicating

For more hints and tips please get in touch with us to see how we can help! JLTS provides a range of free support and advice to families, including individual advice on a range of topics (including communication), family therapy, parenting support and parenting groups.


If you use any of our content or ideas (whether word-for-word or paraphrasing) for social media or professional purposes - please credit us, put a link to our website (if you are using our content online), and let us know!

© 2021-2023 Jess Lovibond Therapeutic Services CIC. All rights reserved.

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