Your Tone of Voice: A Question for Stuart

Stuart, 

I have recently tuned into the matter of tone in spoken language and its impact on the listener/learner.  Whether it is the teacher in the class, the coach of a team of young athletes, or one peer talking to another, there is something at our core that influences our response to tone.  Two people can use exactly the same words, with the same rhythm and at the same volume.  For those hearing one of those people, the language engages attention and is seen as positive and productive, even if it is critical in its content.  The other speaker, replicating the message exactly, causes a different reaction – a stress reaction – in the audience.  What is it that causes that difference?   Is there anything we should be aware of in our classrooms and on our playing fields re. the power of tone?  And, finally, is there anything we can do about it or is our verbal patterning and timbre something we are born with and others have to adjust to for better or for worse?

Response to Mike’s question:

 I should be getting used to this by now, but Mike has an uncanny ability to ask very probing questions that take us deep into the heart of the theory of self-regulation. The answer to his latest letter can be found, yet again, in Porges’ The Polyvagal Theory:

“The polyvagal hypothesis proposes that acoustic characteristics of vocalization not only serve to communicate to consepecifics relevant features in the environment, but also reflect the physiological state of the producer of the vocalizations.”

Let’s translate this into English. What Steve is saying here is that there is an ancient system at the top of our brain stem that is constantly on the lookout for danger. When it senses something threatening it sends a message to those around us through our tone of voice, speech rhythm and speed that conveys: I am anxious, frightened, hyper-vigilant. The same system in the listener’s brain processes this message, again beneath the threshold of conscious awareness.

Whenever we listen to someone this sort of “dual processing” is going on, with our prefrontal cortex processing the meaning of the spoken words and our subcortex processing the signals of hyperarousal. A very basic contagion effect operates here: tension in the speaker begets tension in the listener. And one of the consequences of the very same system operating here is that the more tense the child, the more this affects both her ability to hear the human voice and to process what she does manage to hear.

Mike then asks, what can we do about it if we are worried that the very way we are speaking may be interfering with children’s ability to process what we’re saying? Here is where a complicated story gets even a bit more complicated! For the same nerve system that sends out these alarm signals also inhibits our ability to process the effects of our speech on our listener. So what are we supposed to do? We have a lesson plan to get through, children who are restless, our own concerns at home, and so on.

The best way to address this concern is to build in little spot-checks on our own state of tension. This can be especially useful when we’re in the midst of a lesson. Take a deep breath and try to become aware of the tension that you’re feeling in your neck, shoulders, arms. Then let it go. At the very least you’ll feel better, and what is truly remarkable is that, as you relax, this comes through in your voice.

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