Tone matters more than actual words

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Body language and tone of our voice has a more profound effect on listeners.

By Shilpa Bhasin Mehra

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Published: Wed 21 Jul 2021, 11:51 PM

There is a sense of deep satisfaction when one’s thoughts are in line with a famous theory that is taught in schools and colleges. I am referring to the Mehrabian theory of communication. According to the Mehrabian model, only 7 per cent of personal communication relies on verbal communication or the actual words that are spoken. The remaining 93 per cent lies in non-verbal communication, with 38 per cent comprising tone of voice and 55 per cent concerned with body language.

All we think about is what we speak, the actual words, while our body language and the tone of our voice actually has a more profound effect on the listeners. In communication, a speaker’s words convey a fraction of his thoughts. The pitch and tone of his voice, the pauses between those words may express more than what is being communicated by words alone. Further, his gestures, posture and facial expressions usually convey a variety of subtle signals. These non-verbal elements can present a listener with important clues to the speaker’s thoughts and feelings and thus substantiate or contradict the speaker’s spoken words.

I am not qualified to get into the merits of the Mehrabian theory. This study even if not accurate is a useful reminder that non-verbal cues can be more valuable and telling than verbal ones. Therefore, to be effective and persuasive in our verbal communication be it in official presentations or personal communication, it is essential that our words are in sync with the right tone and voice and the appropriate body language.

When I was growing up, I remember these often-repeated remarks made by parents to their children. “Watch your language” and “mind your tone” or “how are you talking” or “why are you shouting?” If you notice only the first one is about the actual words spoken, the others pertain to the tone of the voice.

When we were in school, busy mugging up spellings for our dictation tests, we had no clue that spellings and sentence construction would be taken care of by spell check and Grammarly. What we still have to watch is our non-verbal communication. There are no apps yet to fix our tone of voice and body language that purely reflect us.

I always thought that people who had a pleasant tone of voice and demeanour managed to get a lot done. They are no doubt very popular and most useful in official meetings. Being brilliant is great, but if your tone is going to be aggressive and break the deal instead of making it, the brilliance is of no use. I heard a communication guru say that when she entered a meeting, she had an agenda to make the people in the room like her. Her motive was to be approachable and likeable. The atmosphere is then more conducive for a meaningful and productive discussion leading to a fruitful result.

I remember my grandmother, my Nani, she had the sweetest voice, soft tone and loving words. Her demeanour was most gentle. She was a perfect example of when your thoughts, words, meaning, expressions all are in complete harmony. It was difficult to argue with her, forget about winning the argument. She disarmed you with her gentle words and tone. She had not studied any theory or psychology. She is no more but she continues to have a deep impact on my mind. She made me realise that when you can get so much done peacefully, why should we raise our voice and blood pressure? What is the point of being educated when we can’t even understand this?

One phrase I hear often is “he/she is good at heart”. My take on this is that it is great to be good at heart. But if his tone is offensive or aggressive and his body language far from pleasant, then I really don’t care how good his heart is. I am not his cardiologist.

Take into consideration the fact that others are unable to see your body language through their computer or mobile screen in the Covid/Zoom era that we are living in, it’s fair to say that tone of voice is a major influencing factor in our communication.

Communication is about the fact that the verbal and non-verbal elements support one another and that these are congruent. What someone says will then be more powerful and convincing because of their gestures and intonation. So next time you say hello, say it with your eyes and smile too. Let our verbal and non-verbal cues be in sync and convey one message. There are enough contradictions in the world and we don’t have to add to them.

Majority of problems of life are due to the tone of voice. It is not what we say, it is how we say. Just change the tone and see the change in life.

Shilpa Bhasin Mehra is a legal consultant based in Dubai and the founder of Legal Connect

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