I write an awful lot about what we say to one another, and how it does or does not serve us in our relationships or in conflict scenarios. It behooves us, however, to remember the striking fact that only around 7% of our communication is based solely on the words we use. This doesn’t mean our words don’t matter, but it does mean that when it comes down to what ultimately gets understood in a communicative event, nonverbal cues can be the determining factor. This is as true in the workplace as it is in your personal life.
Today, communication in the workplace is a major determinant of career success – which we now know is about much more than what we say around the office. This article looks at an important topic I’ve written only briefly about before: tone of voice in the workplace.
Voice of Intentions
The human voice communicates a great deal more than the literal content of its linguistic message. Tone of voice constitutes 38% of our communication. In fact, a great deal of meaning would generally be lost from a message if you removed the vocal component. Think of how ridiculous and funny it sounds when a recorded, robotic voice repeats a normal human sentence: the content is there, but it doesn’t really seem to mean anything.
The non-linguistic part of vocal communication is called paralanguage, and there are a few basic components you should become conscious of – chances are you use them everyday to manipulate and enhance the meaning of your verbal communications!
Volume seems a little obvious, but it plays a major role in communicating how you are relating to the others you are communicating with. Speaking very softly might indicate that you are timid and trying to take up less space. Speaking too loudly could indicate insensitivity or an excess of aggressive emotion. In the workplace, a comfortable speech volume should allow others to clearly hear and understand your words without causing them to feel attacked or invaded.
Pitch refers to how high or low you are speaking. Generally, we all have a natural pitch that’s comfortable for our voice box, but nerves or other emotions can sometimes cause the throat to tighten, driving pitch higher. This can communicate insecurity or a lack of confidence, or intense emotionality in general. Often in the workplace an even natural pitch will get you much further.
Inflection is related to pitch and refers to where you do or do not place emphasis within a word or sentence, often by raising or lowering the pitch of a specific word or two. A sentence might mean multiple things depending on where and how the inflection is placed. As a simple example, think of how a statement can be converted to a question by a simple pitch raise near the end when it’s said out loud.
Rate is how fast you speak. Again, we all have a natural rate to how we talk, but the important thing in the workplace is clear intelligibility. People tend to let their voice rate run faster and faster when they lose confidence, feel nervous, or get upset. This can cause misunderstandings and escalate the general feelings of tension. The leader in the room who keeps their voice even and slow when tensions arise can have a powerful ripple effect on how those tensions play out.
Your tone of voice is a combination of all of these, and how you use them to imbue feeling into what you’ve said. Do you come off as strong, confident, positive and supportive? Or timid, disinterested, or annoyed? What sort of emotional message are you communicating along with the linguistic message?
Watch Your Tongue
Many workplace conflicts arise due to a coworker’s feeling that what was said doesn’t necessarily include or match up with what was meant. Hearing criticism, requests, feedback, or even mundane daily details in a voice that communicates disgust, disdain, or consistent negativity can feel like an insult even if the words themselves seem acceptable. A large number of the workplace conflicts I mediate are caused by misinterpretations of tone of voice. It’s important to be genuine with your coworkers, and if there is a problem seek to communicate your feelings with them overtly rather than slipping them passively and aggressively into your nonverbal vocal cues.
As an added bonus, developing better awareness of your own pitch, inflection, volume, and rate of speech – and how they affect your communications with colleagues and supervisors in the workplace – isn’t only good for avoiding unnecessarily conflict or avoiding escalation. It can also help you nail those job interviews and presentations. Becoming aware of your vocal cues is also about being better at communicating what you want, when you want to, to your own advantage and that of those around you.
 It’s good to understand the context and history of this statistic if you’re going to use it. Here’s a nice explanation from Jeff Thompson on Psychology Today.
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. An expert in dispute resolution and mediation, Ms. Kandell is certified by the International Mediation Institute. She has been a leader in the Montgomery County Bar Association and the Maryland Council for Dispute Resolution. She provides mediation services, group facilitation, neutral evaluation and training to