Have you ever heard yourself speak on an audio recording and said, “Wow! I didn’t know I sounded like that?” If you have, you are not alone. It’s a brain thing. We actually can’t hear our voice and tone the way it actually sounds. [That must be why some people with really bad voices think they can sing and try out for American Idol.] This simple insight is an often overlooked communication key that I discuss below.
Just above your ear lies a part of the brain called the superior temporal sulcus (STS). In a baby up to four months old the STS attends to all sounds. Yet at seven months the STS triggers attention only from human voices. And when emotion accompanies that voice, it really gets activated. God created that part of our brain to help us understand language and read tone and meaning.
However, when we speak, the STS actually turns off. In other words, we don’t hear our voice the same way others hear our voice. That’s the reason we’re surprised at how we sound when we hear an audio recording of it. Some scientists believe this happens because instead of listening to our voice, we listen to our thoughts. And since the brain can’t pay focused attention to more than one thing at a time, it defaults to listening to our self-talk.
So how is this an overlooked key to communication?
Because tone matters greatly when we communicate. One of the world’s leaders in communication, Dr. Albert Mehrabian, believes that tone contributes 38% to spoken communication.
So if tone matters that much, we must pay attention to it, especially if we are leaders.
How can we match our tone to our intended message? Consider these ideas.
- Ask someone who will tell you the truth how your tone comes across when you speak. Is it harsh, condemning, condescending, weak, insecure, positive, upbeat, etc.
- Occasionally record yourself in a conversation and listen to the recording right afterwards. Ask yourself if your tone matched your intended message.
- If a conflict around miscommunication arises with you and your spouse or someone you work with, ask the other person if your tone influenced their perception. If you see patterns in miscommunication, you may find that your tone is the culprit.
- Sloooooow down when you speak. Sometimes we can appear pushy when we talk fast when we’re actually trying to economize time. Space and silence between sentences is OK sometimes.
- Smile when you talk. Research has confirmed that smiling, even when forced, can reduce stress and make us feel happier. And happier people usually convey happier tones.
So the next time you’re in a conversation, try one or two of these ideas and see what happens. Your STS will be glad you did.
What has helped you improve your communication?
See Thanks for the Feedback by Heen and Stone for a fuller explanation of the STS.