There seems to be some good-natured contention about what his research actually indicates, and I don't know enough about the details of the research to add my two cents to the discussion. I do want to draw attention to both his research and the discussion about it from a workplace conflict resolution standpoint.
When we are in conflict with people close to us (at work, at church, at school, or in our family), we generally have ample opportunity to observe them in all sorts of situations. Over time, we start to pick-up on little non-verbal clues emanating from their body language.
Here's what I draw from the discussion about Mehrabian's work with regard to its application to resolving conflict in teams: the non-verbal message conveys a significant portion of the emotional message communicated.
I won't even begin to discuss what percentage of the communication it represents. I'm not going to offer any interpretation of whether his study represents the listener's feelings about the speaker, the listener's thoughts about the speaker's feelings, or the listener's feelings about the speaker's feelings. I haven't read the actual study. I've just read other people's interpretations of his findings.
Here is one point that seems to be pretty well accepted (I think), when non-verbal messages and verbal messages are inconsistent (or perceived to be inconsistent), the non-verbal message trumps the verbal message.
I'm sure that all of us have been on the receiving end of an “I'm just fine” said with a sarcastic tone and a roll of the eyes. In those moments, most of us realize that “I'm just fine” actually means “I'm really irritated, but I don't want to tell you that.”
So, my thought for workplace and family conflict resolution is this: watch your non-verbal messages. People have a sense for your real emotional state no matter what words you use in an attempt to cover it up.
Instead of insinuating your true emotions with non-verbal clues, develop good conflict communication habits that honestly express your thoughts and feelings so that you don't leave them open to interpretation (or misinterpretation) by others. Learn to use assertive communication techniques that clarify emotions in place of passive or aggressive communication techniques that tend to escalate rather than resolve the conflict.
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