Communication has three components: verbal, nonverbal, and nonlexical. This third component, nonlexical, consists of the vocal, but nonverbal, aspects of speaking, including intonation, pitch and speed of speaking, hesitation noises, etc.
One of the nonlexical areas I struggle with is using a soft tone of voice when I get irritated or upset. Using the right tone of voice is critical because many studies show it directly correlates with how interpersonal interactions turn out. One study has shown it takes five positive interactions to make up for one instance where a negative tone of voice was used. That's a hard ratio to keep up with if you struggle like me.
Researchers have also proven individuals tend to mimic back communication styles used. If I whisper to you, you are likely to whisper back. (Although you might ask, “Why are we whispering?”) And if I speak with a snark, my kids might get snarky back. So an adverse tone of voice may result in an escalation of nonconstructive conversation at home or elsewhere simply because of this mimic effect.
So what can you do to help ensure you use the right tone of voice? Here are three tips:
1. Be mindful.
Just being aware is half the battle. It’s when I am distracted and not thinking about what I am saying I end up using the wrong tone of voice and in trouble. I try to slow down and actively think about the purpose of my conversations and to remind myself of the need for positive outcomes. Relationships are always more important than resources or things, so keeping this in mind helps me to stay focused and use a positive tone.
2. Try whispering.
Because people often mimic back tone of voice, and because emotion is contagious, I have found speaking softly by literally whispering works well. Whispering is less reactive because it doesn’t usually carry a strong threat. And often it gets the other person to listen more closely. If you don't want to whisper, just lowering your volume to soft helps too.
3. Take a time out.
For me, losing control of my tone of voice is a symptom that my emotions are running high. And it is generally not a good idea to communicate with others when emotions are out of control. To get myself some time to gain control I will tell the other person I need to think about things and ask if we can talk more about it later. Then I can come back later using a reasonable and assertive communication style.
Hopefully as we practice being mindful, and using other strategies to keep our tone soft we can have greater success in our families. May your positive communication build great relationships!