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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.
Tone of voice often means much more than what you say
It’s not what you say, but how you say it.
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 the 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.
What is tone of voice, and why is it important?
Whether it’s from your parents or during a marketing seminar, you’ve probably heard something about your “tone of voice” during your life. But why is it so important?
It’s because your tone of voice encompasses your words. Your tone of voice focuses on how you speak and the ensuing impression words make on everyone around you. Think of your tone of voice like a personalized vocal “fingerprint” that distinguishes who you are and can tell others so much about you.
Your tone of voice is powerful because it’s who you are as a human. Your friends, family, clients, and partners are people just like you who respond best to words and phrases that make them feel good.
The smallest elements in your tone of voice make all the difference
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.
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 of 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.
How does the tone of voice in communication influence how messages are received?
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 an 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:
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.
Your pitch is powerful because it helps you cut through noise. When you’re needing to make a professional impression or drive in a point, a low-pitch can make you seem more authoritative and serious, even if what you’re actually saying isn’t profound. Consequently, your tone of voice can have the opposite effect. If you’re constantly at a high pitch, others might assume you’re unsure about what you’re trying to convey. This can lead to a sense of untrustworthiness that can make it harder to get what you want.
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.
A good rule of thumb, especially if you’re speaking in front of an audience, is to speak at half the speed you normally talk. This helps make sure your tone of voice is clear enough so everyone in the audience can understand
A steady and even pace is powerful because it cultivates focus. It’s much easier for your partner or audience to listen if you’re speaking slowly. It’s a lot harder for a listener to try and understand what you’re trying to say and stay engaged if you’re speaking at a fast speed and stringing words together.
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.
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.
Emotionally-charged words set you apart. One of the most powerful ways to cultivate a powerful tone of voice is to shift your mindset to your heart and let your message shine through your words.
Let your tone of voice shine when communicating with your partner
It can get easy to simply talk with our partners and assume they understand and know what we’re saying. This can raise issues and lead to situations where important feelings or emotions weren’t discussed.
Instead of retreating backwards and going through the motions of communicating with your partner, step forward and practice mindfulness about your tone of voice and how it influences your partner. Becoming aware of the words you use and the type of emotion you give off when speaking is a powerful way to remain present when communicating with your partner. It’s in these moments of authenticity where barriers break down and you both can really share about how you feel.
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