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Watching your tone

How you speak to your partner can determine your relationship’s future

It’s not what you say, but how you say it.

Why is tone important?

In his book, The Relationship Cure, Dr. Gottman reveals that when it comes to assessing the meaning of communication in relationships, only 7% of that meaning comes from the spoken word, while 38% comes from tone of voice and speech patterns. Words that may seem neutral can become incendiary if spoken with a sarcastic, demeaning or contemptuous tone of voice, causing the listener to feel hurt and disrespected.

But while we’ve always known that tone of voice is an important part of clear communication, just how critical are things like vocal inflection, volume and pitch when it comes to the health of your relationship? According to a 2015 study that examined hundreds of conversations from over 100 couples during marriage therapy sessions, your tone of voice may be a key indicator of your relationship success.

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How is talking tone affecting relationships?

Over the course of two years, researchers from the University of Southern California recorded hundreds of conversations from marriage counseling sessions. The researchers then analyzed the recordings, looking at things like pitch, intensity and even warbles in the voice that can indicate moments of intense emotion. They also looked at the impact one partner’s tone of voice had on the other.

To compare the data, a separate group of experts analyzed the behavior of the couples, taking special note of positive qualities like “acceptance” or negative qualities like “blame.” The researchers then tracked the couples over a period of five years to determine if there was any change in their relationship.

What the researchers found about talking tone confirmed what many of us may already know intuitively – that communication is not just about what you say, but how you say it. And the data showed that studying the couple’s voices, rather than their behaviors, better predicted the eventual improvement or deterioration of the relationship.

“Psychological practitioners and researchers have long known that the way that partners talk about and discuss problems has important implications for the health of their relationships. However, the lack of efficient and reliable tools for measuring the important elements in those conversations has been a major impediment in their widespread clinical use. These findings represent a major step forward in making objective measurement of behavior practical and feasible for couple therapists,” said collaborator Brian Baucom of the University of Utah.

What does your tone of voice in communication convey?

While there may not be an easy way for you to record your conversations and analyze the tone of your own voice, you can still work on becoming more aware and more mindful of the way you speak to your partner. Consider these aspects of your voice:

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Pitch

Your pitch is how high or how low your voice can fluctuate. An overly high-pitched voice can suggest immaturity and defensiveness. And if you end a sentence using a higher pitch, that can sound more like a question instead of an affirmative statement, which will only leave your partner feeling confused.

Pace

How quickly or slowly do you speak when you and your partner are in the middle of an argument? In addition to fine-tuning your talking tone, you must also be mindful of your pace. When you slow down, you can help your partner understand what you are saying and they will be better able to absorb your message. Going too slow, however, can be construed as demeaning and offensive. To really get your message across, focus on articulating and conveying your message as clearly as possible by speaking at a steady, even pace.

Volume

This should go without saying: Yelling at your partner will just fire back at you, either causing them to yell back or retreat from the conversation entirely. Instead of raising your voice, if you want to emphasize something, try slowing the pace of your words. Pause to highlight major points or to give your partner time to take in your point.

Timbre

This is the emotional quality of your talking tone – the attitude you bring to what you say. Your partner will use this to build their understanding of what you are saying. Practice managing your voice and taking note of how you sound (i.e., frustrated, rushed, happy, sad). This will help you become more aware of the way your attitude is filtered through the inflections of your voice.

Header image credit © wavebreakmedia / shutterstock

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Team Tony cultivates, curates and shares Tony Robbins’ stories and core principles, to help others achieve an extraordinary life.

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