By Louise Mahler PhD
Voice is surprisingly important in defining who we are and inextricably linked with who we bring to the workplace. Yet, in Australia there is little work being done to help rid people of some of the vocal “twang”. That vocal lack of intelligence that can sometimes make us cringe with disbelief at the voice of another person being so incongruent with what we expect. Or worse still, silence the voices of those in our companies who feel unable to speak up, and can offer so much in these times of constant change.
The widely known work of Mehrabian provides a great insight into how we perceive a verbal message; why we might like or dislike it. He showed that only 7% of our perception was based on the words themselves. 55% was based on what we saw in the body, bearing and gestures of the other, and a significant 38% from the voice.
Yes, those elements that make up our voice – articulation, pitch, intonation, volume, inflection, etc – influence our perception of others to a surprising degree. This voice component becomes even more significant when you consider how much of our business communication is delivered over the telephone.
It’s also beneficial to understand the associated stereotypes, particularly in the corporate world. How much does our perception make up our minds for us about such things as first impressions, attractiveness, credibility and confidence?
Zuckerman and Miyake defined the attractive voice as sounding “more articulate, lower in pitch, higher in pitch range, low in squeakiness, non-monotonous, appropriately loud and resonant”. Berry established that people with attractive voices are seen to “have greater power, competence, warmth and honesty attributed to them.” In contrast he found “people with ‘babyish’ voices are usually perceived to be less powerful.”
Consequently the squeaky, high pitched, monotonous, clipped voice of the archetypical call-centre employee asking “How can I help you?” is stereotyped. We hear them as someone who is powerless, lacking honesty, and even incompetent. On one hand the words express warmth and concern. On the other hand we can also hear a tight squeezing around the throat and we immediately perceive an inflexible mind.
Likewise an executive announcing the corporate delight at an enormous profit in a detached monotone voice, is equally as ludicrous.
If this is true, why don’t we see effective programs aimed at changing perceptions and recognizing that this is just stereotyping?
The reason is clear. Responding to changes in stereotypical voice patterns is a game of non-authentic imitation. In Australia we have an inbuilt “bull dust” detector that makes us different to Americans. We laugh at the TV series “Friends”, when Monica tells us “Honesty is the key to a relationship. If you can fake that, you’re in.” We loathe non-authentic responses and will sniff them out from 30 paces!
So if the work is not being done to change these perceptions, how can you work on voice, and change your prospects in the workplace?
The answer is that true work on voice involves recognising your responses to stress and different emotional states. It is analysed in terms of breathing, posture, throat tension and the associated mental scripts, often raising unconscious feelings. Habitual patterns and often blockages are identified and can be changed.
In this way voice work enters a world of personal development. It becomes a way of recognising patterns of thought that have repercussions not only for communication, but for many other areas as well. Through voice work, or Vocal Intelligence, you might improve your golf swing, even your sex life, as well as the influence of your presentations and one-on-one dialogues.
It never fails to fascinate me how people are often silenced by some pressure in the workplace and how we understand that situation as acceptable.
Not that ‘being silenced’ is unnatural. The vocal folds act as a valve, whose major function is to stop water from entering the lungs and stop us from drowning. Although effective when literally drowning, it can also close or immobilise the vocal function, because of stress and without the danger of water, especially in the workplace.
The first problem with not addressing this issue, is your repeated failure, the experience of which is a blow to self-esteem, something my clients recognise as devastating. The second wider-reaching problem is the complete paralysis of the workplace we are attempting to work in, in a new effective way.
In fact, Handy, Senge and Peters have all referred to this ‘devoicing’ as incongruent with corporate objectives. Corporations need us to express opinion, make influential speeches and provide open feedback, as part the skills for successful interpersonal relationships and leadership. Just one strategy identified by Senge to address global change, is to build the skills in reflective conversation and dialogue. Try doing that with your mouth shut!
The challenge you face in finding voice is that self-guidance is an inadequate instrument for development. You can’t hear yourself, so stop trying. And you can’t fake it, because we Australians loathe non-authentic expression.
We should recognise ‘devoicing’ as a chronic illness in the workplace that, while it might be natural, is not acceptable. It is curable through a literal ‘re-voicing’ at an authentic level, expressing who we are by mobilising sound. Rodenburg realised ‘there are no boring, ugly, bad voices, only lost ones’.
Accept that you have a voice. That it is capable of being a superb reflection of who you are. Recognise the holistic elements of vocal improvement, which involve amongst other things breathing, posture and patterns of thought under stress. This is done together with a coach, working in the context of the stresses that began the problem in the first place, and reflecting progress through vocal tone.