Your voice is a powerful instrument for communicating with the world. However, the human voice communicates much more than the literal content of its linguistic message. In fact, a great deal of meaning would generally be lost from a message if you removed the vocal component.
The non-linguistic part of vocal communication is called paralanguage , and there are a few basic components you should become aware of – chances are you use them every day to manipulate and enhance the meaning of your verbal communications.
Volume 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 be the most productive.
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. For 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 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 convey feelings with 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?
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 unnecessary conflict or avoiding escalation. It can also help you succeed in 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.
Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She is one of eight Maryland mediators featured on a statewide demonstration video of good mediation practice. Ellen is certified by the International Mediation Institute. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse clients in Washington, DC and the US. Get in touch with her via email, and follow her on LinkedIn, and Twitter.