Tone of voice affects all of us, perhaps more so to those of us with greater auditory sensitivity. The auditory component of our communication style is tricky because how we hear our voice is not how others hear it. For one thing, it literally sounds different: We hear the sound internally, through tissues and bone. We also know how we feel when we express ourselves and the intention behind the words.
Tone of voice is surely relevant in this regard, but does our intention come through so our feelings are clear to the other person? We might, for example, put emphasis on a word that affects the listener in a way we hadn’t intended, to which the listener might ask, “Well, why would you say that?” You might respond, “Because it’s true.” But what’s true? Is it the meaning the listener gleaned that you are not aware of?
This type of miscommunication is common, so it’s critical that we take care in conversation to clarify the meaning of what is said, especially if we get a negative jolt from something we heard. Taking time to inquire about the speaker’s intent before reacting is important and difficult to do if the jolt is a big one.
If the vocal tone we hear communicates something negative (e.g. hostility or lack of caring), the content of the communication will likely get lost, and once we do peg it as negative, correcting it becomes difficult. Like all miscommunication some things are stickier than others, but it is important that we check out our negative perceptions as quickly as possible and give the benefit of the doubt if the speaker is sincere in discussing the perceptual differences. Of course, this is an act of faith that is hard to extend when our own negative feelings are activated. Most of us, however, are usually sincere in seeking clarity and wanting to achieve accurate understanding in our relationships.
In my leadership and communication coaching practice, I talk with clients about rhythm and pace of their conversational style, something that is worth paying attention to. Most of us find this conversational rhythm and pace intuitively. However, being mindful of it is grounding, and with this act of attention we usually recognize how quickly we react/respond. Clients find this area of coaching particularly helpful because it’s so behaviorally immediate and obvious once they are aware of it.
Simple observations lead to larger awareness and insight. As a very psychologically minded culture, this runs counter to what we frequently do, which is to go for the big ah-ha insight that is comprehensive . . . and, I would suggest, dangerous. For example: “Gee, it looks to me like you try to control situations by overpowering others,” verses, “When you are speaking, your voice gets louder and faster with an intensity that makes it hard to have much give and take.” The first example offers a high risk and very suggestive “insight.” The second example focuses on the manifest behavior and direct experience, suspending judgment and opening the opportunity to clarify what is going on.
This openness leads to the possibility of a very real discussion where more questions arise, more give and take occurs, and more reliable insights authored by the person who knows best: the speaker, not the listener. When someone observes their own simple communication behaviors unfolding before them, they can more easily see how to modify those behaviors. This is important because then you are not operating on automatic pilot but present with greater flexibility to achieve understanding— the goal of interpersonal communication.
Paying attention to what occurs to produce sound when we are talking — tone, volume, rhythm, cadence, timbre — helps us understand the impact we are having on others. These cues and clues get us outside of ourselves, as we recognize the complexity inherent in conversation and see the interaction as a co-creation process.