The Power of Good Communication
Andrea Luoma Forbes Councils MemberForbes Coaches CouncilCOUNCIL
Our voice has more power than some of us realize. Our voice affects others, and their voice affects us. Voices can grate, annoy or irritate. Lately, my overflowing email inbox of webinars and podcasts finds me immediately hitting delete if the sound of the presenter's voice is creaky, squeaky or just too much, no matter how good the content may have potentially been.
We've all overheard a conversation, even if in a foreign language. No need to see the speakers' faces, and never mind that you can't understand the words as you don't speak the language; still, an amazing amount of information can be inferred: perhaps the country they're from; their mood; whether they're happy, afraid or in distress. You also evaluate some of their physical characteristics, including gender, age, size and even attractiveness through the acoustical cues of the voice. Voice perception research is a field of study about how the brain processes and analyzes this information.
While vocally communicating, we interchange a variety of "selves," depending on our environment and the social and informational goals of the conversation. Does your tone vary when speaking with a family member or friend versus with work colleagues?
Hearing happiness in the voice of another makes us pay more attention than even hearing happiness in our own voice. Our auditory processing system highly prioritizes expressive changes, even in a stranger's voice, as compared to the same changes in our own.
How often have you answered the phone and said or heard, "It's so nice to hear your voice"? Neuroimaging studies find the voices we're familiar with engage our higher-order responses that reflect their importance to us through social salience.
Conversations - real, voice-to-voice conversations - are important and make us feel good. A 2012 article in Evolution and Human Behavior entitled "Instant Messages vs. Speech: Hormones and Why We Still Need to Hear Each Other" found merely hearing the voice of our loved ones versus a text conversation reduces our blood cortisol levels, which are a marker of stress, and heightens the release of oxytocin, the feel-good hormone associated with bonding. Researchers found it's likely the prosodic auditory cues (tone) that produce the positive feel-good hormonal effects, not the linguistic content of the exchange. In other words, make the call; you'll both feel better!
Enough texting! To quote that same article on why we still need to hear each other, "though rich in nuance and emotional tone, written language, texting or instant messaging is no substitute for spoken language or direct in-person contact." Call your boss and call your loved ones. Hearing the voices of others helps us solve problems and demands attention from both listener and speaker in a way that texting does not. Neuroscience finds the brain is wired for voice. Discern the word "help" and its meaning based on the emotional tone if you were asking for assistance finishing a monthly report versus needing to escape a flash flood.
Tone also matters so much that a landmark study found when patients listened for just 40 seconds to an audio recording and heard the tone of voice used by a surgeon, an accurate prediction could be made regarding whether they would be sued for malpractice. The vocal indicators for malpractice were a deep, loud, moderately fast, unaccented and clearly articulated voice. Ironic that the same characteristics that would make communication easy to understand also communicated a tone indicating dominance, lack of empathy, understanding and indifference. What tone should a surgeon take? Vocalization and intonation that express concern, empathy and a slight edge of anxiety are much better tones.
In the age of video calls, it has been nice to see the faces of our colleagues and loved ones during the social distancing of the pandemic. Still, a 2017 study from Yale University found that voice-only communication elicits greater empathy; thus, more justification to pick up the phone and talk. These findings held when compared to visual or other sensory communication across different kinds of emotional discussions and is in line with previous research showing vocal cues are more important than facial cues to accurately identify a specific emotion.
Certainly, our voice affects others, and it affects ourselves. Voice vibration and frequency impact our mental and emotional states. The next time you accidentally hit your finger with a hammer, if you cry out in some form of "ow" when this happens, it'll help you cope with the pain. Even repeating the "ow" sound without much emotion, saying "ow...ow...ow...ow..." acts as an analgesic when compared to sitting passively and silently while enduring pain. These results from the Journal of Pain provide evidence that vocalizing helps us cope with pain.
Ever struggle with waking up in the morning? Did you know your voice also gives you energy? So sing away in the morning shower and while the coffee is brewing and you may not need that jolt of caffeine. Or talk to the dog, talk to the goldfish or even talk to yourself. Speak in the first and third person and use your own name. The sound, air and vibration of your voice convert into electrical properties within the inner ear, acting like energy to the brain, charging the cortex, nourishing the nervous system and stimulating the vestibular system. The sound of your voice has profound effects on alertness, concentration, creativity, equilibrium, memory and mood.
We must pay closer attention to our voice and have greater awareness of how our tone and words may impact our listener(s) - before we say them. It's multitasking for our brains that only single-task, and it is a lot of additional thought before you find and utter words. Yet it's well worth the effort if it can eliminate a conflict, save a relationship or simply make someone's day.
It doesn't matter what you say; it only matters what someone hears and, more importantly, how it makes them feel.