Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas Eve to those celebrating! While this entry is not explicitly festive, I would invite you to consider how the tools discussed here may be particularly applicable to life during this unusual and rather disrupted holiday season. As always, it may be easiest to see how others fail in this capacity; however, in the interest of peace and goodwill, I encourage you to consider making these changes in your own behavior first, and then seeing how your spirit of positive change can inspire those around you. And if you prefer something more specifically seasonal, check out last year’s post!
Effective verbal communication hinges on both what is said, as well as how it is said. Depending on who is receiving the communication, the latter is just as essential as the former—often even more. Therapists refer to this as process versus content. In terms of process, I tend to focus on three elements of verbal communication: rate, volume, and tone. While it may seem like a simple fix, attention to these can help correct and enhance communication significantly between virtually anyone—and provide some relief in those relationships which may be particularly strained these days.
Rate of speech, compared to tone and volume, is often overlooked. However, it has significant impact on how a listener receives verbal communication. Specifically, speaking—or responding—very quickly is often associated with dismissiveness, argumentativeness, or hostility; fast rate of speech and high volume tend to positively correlate—both in practice and in perception. Even in situations when a speaker is not speaking more loudly than usual, they may be perceived to be loud if they are speaking fast.
Many people benefit from intentionally slowing down their rate of speech: interpersonally, it can diminish reactivity, and increase a sense of calm and collaboration; intrapsychically, it can diminish anxiety and impulsiveness, and increase self-awareness and self-esteem. Moreover, slowing down gives the speaker a chance to actually hear their own words—and possibly choose them more effectively as a result. This is one of many ways in which context and process are inextricably linked.
Volume can be harder to control, but if it is mastered, the benefits are obvious. Similar to slowing rate of speech, lowering volume has the recursive advantages of making the conversation feel safer to others, who are less likely to attack if they do not feel threatened, and ultimately affording the speaker a more hospitable and receptive audience. Unfortunately, many of us learn from experience in dysfunctional relationships and environments that the only way to be heard it to be loud. This philosophy is unsustainable over time; even to the extent that it is effective, it is unlikely to engender authentic trust and accord—just panicked submission and ultimately resentment.
Of these three, tone is probably the most obviously impactful, as well as the most challenging to manage. Even when we are conscious of it, the tone we intend is easily misperceived by others. How common it is to hear that we seem angry or aggressive or cruel or indifferent when in fact we feel sad or lonely or hurt or eager for reassurance?
Effective tone management benefits from some degree of creative performance—that is, acting—which, admittedly, feels like contradictory advice when the aim is authenticity. However, this is based on the working hypothesis, born out over many hours of observation, that many of us do not have access to our whole authentic selves—at least not on a regular basis. So, we must instead play-act to figure out who we are: and through acting we can start to regain access to and explore those areas of our psyches which have be boarded up or walled off or otherwise hidden from view.
There are innumerable theatrical archetypes which can help inform both how an optimal tone sounds, and which tone is best suited to any given situation. The options I give here are vaguely reminiscent of Carl Jung’s 12 archetypes (conorneill.com/2018/04/21, 2018). These archetypes are meant to provide the speaker with options for speaking and acting in ways they previously would not have known how to do or would not have considered. Notably, slow rate of speech and low volume will complement and enhance all of these:
- Wise Sage: Assuming the tone of this archetype, the speaker strives for an air of patience and contemplation. They seek to educate others, but only after first seeking to educate themselves. The tone of the Sage can be helpful when initiating conversations about something that has hurt you, or when making a request for change. Accompanying body language might include avoiding eye contact, looking up or into the middle distance instead.
- Contrite Toddler: This archetype is most helpful in conversations where conflict has escalated beyond practical disagreement, and both the speaker and the listener are emotionally wounded, but desire reconciliation [i.e. intimate partners after taking a time-out]. The Contrite Toddler is humble, clumsy, and ineloquent—he has few words and no arguments or justifications. The Toddler’s concurrent neediness and hopefulness inspires compassion in the listener, paving the way for verbal and physical reconnection.
- Patient Parent: This archetype performs most notably when an interaction has reached an impasse, when an individual wants to concurrently convey a clear position, and at the same time model validation and understanding of an opposing view. The tone of the Parent is honest, patient and opportunistically humorous; while the Parent will not use laughter to deflect or diminish another’s position, it is open to laughter and levity at their own expense, or to foil their own anger. The subtext of any statement from the Parent is “our relationship is more important than my authority”—which, paradoxically, reinforces both the relationship and their authority within it.
- Magnanimous Monarch: This archetype is formidable and self-possessed; the monarch derives confidence, even pleasure, from unqualified generosity of spirit and unconditional positive regard for others. The Monarch’s tone can receive a sincere apology, or help sooth fear and shame by communicating their own self-confidence and self-acceptance; the subtext of the Monarch in any conversation is “I am safe, I can heal; you too are safe, you too can heal.”
As we look into the new year, consider what new opportunities you can create in all your verbal interactions, simply by paying closer attention to rate, tone, and volume. All change requires experimentation; you may find that learning a new tone and deciphering when to employ it takes a few tries—and even more to feel authentic. Reducing rate and volume will almost always help to reduce tension and increase safety; moreover, since rate and volume are somewhat more quantifiable than tone, these are a good place to start to make change.
Janine Joly-DeMars, MS, LCMFT, provides family, couple, and individual therapy in our downtown Bethesda office and virtually to clients located in the state of Maryland. Please call or e-mail today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary consultation with Janine.