It’s not what you say, but how you say it.
In his book, “The Relationship Cure,” Dr. Gottman reveals that when it comes to assessing the meaning of what their partners are saying, only 7% of that meaning comes from the spoken word, while 38% comes from tone of voice and speech patterns. Words that may seem neutral can become incendiary if spoken with a sarcastic, demeaning, or contemptuous tone of voice, causing the listener to feel hurt and disrespected.
But while we’ve always known that tone of voice is an important part of clear communication, just how critical are things like vocal inflection, volume and pitch when it comes to the health of your relationship? According to a recent study that examined hundreds of conversations from over 100 couples during marriage therapy sessions — your tone of voice may be a key indicator of your marital success.
Over the course of two years, researchers from the University of Southern California recorded hundreds of conversations from marriage counseling sessions. The researchers then analyzed the recordings, looking at things like pitch, intensity, and even warbles in the voice that can indicate moments of intense emotion. They also looked at the impact a partner’s tone of voice had on the other.
“It’s not just about studying your emotions. It’s about studying the impact of what your partner says on your emotions.” – Shrikanth Narayanan, Professor & Researcher, USC
To compare the data, a separate group of experts analyzed the behavior of the couples, taking special note of positive qualities like “acceptance” or negative qualities like “blame.” The researchers then tracked the couples over five years to determine if there was any change in their relationship.
What the researchers found confirmed what may of us may know intuitively — that communication is not just about what you say, but how you say it. And the data showed that studying the couple’s voices, rather than their behaviors, better predicted the eventual improvement or deterioration of the relationship.
“Psychological practitioners and researchers have long known that the way that partners talk about and discuss problems has important implications for the health of their relationships. However, the lack of efficient and reliable tools for measuring the important elements in those conversations has been a major impediment in their widespread clinical use. These findings represent a major step forward in making objective measurement of behavior practical and feasible for couple therapists,” said collaborator Brian Baucom of the University of Utah.
WHAT DOES YOUR TONE OF VOICE CONVEY?
While there may not be an easy way for you to record your conversations and analyze the tone, you can become more aware and more mindful of the way you speak to your partner. Consider these aspects of your voice:
Your pitch is how high or how low your voice goes. An overly high-pitched voice can suggest immaturity and defensiveness. And if you end a sentence using a higher pitch, that can sound more like a question that an affirmative statement, creating doubt in your partner.
How quickly or slowly do you speak when you and your partner are in the middle of an argument? Be mindful of your pace. When you slow down, you can help your partner understand what you are saying and they will be better able to absorb your message. Going too slow, however, can be construed as demeaning and offensive. To really get your message across, focus on articulating and conveying your message as clearly as possible, speaking at a steady, even pace.
This should go without saying — yelling at your partner will just fire back at you, either causing them to yell back or retreat. Instead, if you want to emphasize something, try slowing the pace. Pause to highlight major points or to give your partner time to take in your point.
This is the emotional quality of your voice — the attitude you bring to what you say. Your parter will use this to build their understanding of what you are saying. Practice managing your voice and taking note of how you sound (I.e., frustrated, rushed, happy, sad) and becoming more aware of the way your attitude is filtered through your voice.