Tone of voice as a transitory manifestation of psycho-physiology

A very important and often ignored dimension of tone of voice is that it frequently is a manifestation of the transitory psycho-physiological state of the speaker.

When this transitoriness of tone of voice with its many complex subjective dimensions is ignored or more commonly misinterpreted by the listener, communication can be seriously disrupted.

In simple language, to listen to someone speak is to be in a state of figuring out what they mean, emotionally and otherwise.

Tone of voice is mostly an emotional marker.

When we listen to someone speak, we determine the fullness of their meaning by guessing and anticipating what their point is; by comparing and remembering what they are saying now to what they said in the past; and by monitoring their tone of voice for cues about their emotional state, either toward us, toward their topic, or toward something else.

Since tone of voice involves emotions—both the speaker’s and the listener’s—it can have very subtle and complex ramifications. And this is especially true because so much tone of voice is nothing more than a transitory manifestation of the speaker’s psycho-physiological state.

This point is super important and is worth pausing to consider even if you are sure you know what I mean.

Spoken language moves quickly through a great many transitory states, including word choice, corrections, varying intentions, feedback from the listener, to say nothing of non-linguistic clues like gesture, facial expression, and so on.

Tone of voice is one of these. If we misunderstand it, big problems can result.

A simple example is this. Early this morning I was sleepily standing near my partner watching her cut some scallions. The moment was very pleasant. As I stood there, the microwave beeped. I ignored it and she said, “You can remove that stuff if you want.”

I said something I can’t recall exactly, to which she replied, “Are you irritated?”

(She said that because we are actively pursuing an investigation of tone of voice.)

I stopped and thought about it. Yes, maybe 15% of my psycho-physiological state—my ready and on communication state, fuzzy as it was—had a deep-seated bad feeling about statements like that one: “You can do whatever…”

After more thought, I realized that the 15% bad feeling was coming from an event that had happened years before. One of the rudest things someone ever said to me was “you can leave now.”

I won’t go into that event, but I can trace some of my my sense of that phrase back to that event. It has nothing to do with my mom or dad or Sigmund Freud. It was just something a rude person said and it made me feel bad and I have not forgotten it.

That event was not in my mind when my partner spoke in the kitchen this morning, but it had long ago colored my reaction to the phrase “you can…” and thus affected my transitory emotional state this morning. That state was fleeting but part of me was in it when I spoke and thus my partner heard a tinge of irritation in my voice.

If we were not FIML partners we would have ignored my tone of voice and moved on. I would have retained a small dose of irritation hormones and associations in my mind and my partner would have retained a small dose of her version of that as the person who heard me speak that way.

Since we do FIML, we were able to avoid all of that while at the same time upgrading our understanding of each other and how we communicate.

This is a good example of how wonderful and excellent it is to find a mistake through FIML practice.

My tone was a mistake. Discovering it helps me offload the bad associations I have with that phrase. Hearing my explanation of my mistake helps my partner dismiss whatever reaction she had to my tone. Furthermore, both of us are more deeply sensitized to how significant transitory emotions can be, how they can affect tone of voice and communication between us.

This example will now serve as a paradigm for future instances of misguided tones of voice between us.

Just as micro mistakes in communication can have long-lasting and outsized ramifications, so micro analyses through FIML practice can provide very large benefits to partners. Rather than muddle along with a stupid misunderstanding, partners improve their lives by figuring out what actually happened and using that to prevent further mistakes in the future.

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