How Voice Tone Affects Your Relationships: “It’s not WHAT you say…”

Many people are familiar with the statement, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.” In fact, this has been confirmed by some well-known research conducted by Dr. Albert Mehrabian. His studies concluded that communication is 7% verbal and 93% non-verbal.  

He then broke down the non-verbal components as follows: 55% is from facial expressions, gestures, and postures, while 38% is from tone of voice. Although his research has been criticized (in that it overstates how much of communication is really non-verbal), the point is, a large part of communication — and arguably the most important part — is actually non-verbal, which does include one’s tone of voice.

However, until recently, research hadn’t confirmed the significance of different voice tones and what impact they have on our relationships.

Over a two-year period, using a computer algorithm, researchers from the University of Southern California recorded hundreds of conversations in therapy sessions. They focused particularly on the pitch and intensity of voices, which indicated high emotion. Over 100 couples participated and the findings were reported in the journal, Proceedings of Interspeech.

Amazingly, results showed that tone of voice was a better predictor of marital success than the opinions of counseling professionals! This is even more significant when you consider that these counseling professionals had the distinct advantage of being able to analyze couples’ behavior, body language, and other communication factors.

A five-year follow-up with the study participants confirmed the algorithm findings were able to predict improvement or deterioration in relationships 74% of the time!

The takeaway from this research is that how you say something really, really matters — especially in the sphere of intimate relationships.

While an algorithm analysis won’t likely show up in your therapist’s office anytime soon, what the research revealed is quite important. The tone of voice we use can positively or negatively affect our interactions with others, particularly with those closest to us.

How you speak, and what you and your partner say to each other, greatly impacts your emotions and relationship quality. In support of this statement, another recent study found that couples who show appreciation for each other by saying “please” and “thank you” had the happiest marriages. Even small, infrequent signs of gratitude helped keep partners feeling connected, better prepared to survive rough times, and avoid divorce.

Think about it: A comment directed to you in a sarcastic or critical tone comes across as a negative blow, right? Yet hearing the same words, delivered in a kind and loving tone, has an entirely different and upbeat feel, doesn’t it? The big communication difference lies in the tone of voice we choose when we communicate with others.

If you recognize negative voice tone patterns in your relationships, see if the following exercise is helpful:

Focus on the tone of voice both you and your partner use when interacting. At the same time, pay attention to how particular voice tones affect your mood and emotions. Try studying your responses for a full week or simply start with one weekend.

Regularly observing the way you speak to others, as well as how the words are received, would be a great start or addition to a mindfulness practice. Equally important, observe how the varying tones of voice from others impact you.

Most of us don’t pay enough attention to how our tone of voice (as well as the words we use) affects our interactions with others. If your relationships are suffering due to poor communication and you could benefit from more guidance, do not hesitate to seek professional support from a local therapist.

While what you say, of course, matters, how you say it truly does make a big difference.

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