What happens when we talk on the telephone? We cannot see the facial expressions and supporting body language of the caller. We can only rely on the words themselves and the characteristics of the way the words are spoken which conveys the sense of what is being said.
In such circumstances our listening skills must be alert and heightened. Christine Knott tells us how…
For some years now statistics have claimed that verbal communication is transferred and received through the words used, the characteristics of the voice when saying them and body language.
Body language and verbal communication
Body language can be any part of the body used to transfer the message along with facial expressions. Put into percentage terms it equates to 7 per cent words, 38 per cent vocal characteristics, and 55 per cent body language. This means that over half the message is transferred by our body actions and facial expressions, which are viewed in order to receive the content of the message.
The combination of 55 per cent and 38 per cent represents most of the message and many people are surprised that the use of words is minimal when understanding what someone is saying to us.
I can recall an occasion when I was sitting in a Spanish bar on holiday. A group of tourists from the UK and Germany were conversing with a group of locals. As I watched from the other side of the room it was apparent that the topic of conversation was football. Each person spoke in their native language, so apart from team or players’ names most words were lost amongst the group. What was understood was the body language and emotion used to say the words. The result was that the group was having a great time and continued to communicate in that way for well over an hour. What was noticeable was that when anyone spoke they would unconsciously exaggerate their body language and vocal characteristics. It was a great demonstration of how a conversation is transferred and understood through body language and vocal characteristics.
The mind and body reflect each other. Would you believe someone who agreed with you whilst shaking their head from side to side?
There are a number of ways we can use listening to pick up on the feelings and thoughts of the speaker.
A caller’s mood can be detected by listening to their pitch. When you speak on the telephone you cannot see their mood but you can hear it. You have probably heard the phrase ‘You can hear a smile on the telephone’. This is due to the higher pitch that is naturally adopted when someone speaks when they are smiling.
Women’s vocal chords are naturally shorter than those of a man which makes their voices higher pitched during any conversation. It is the emotional state of a person, though, that has most effect on the pitch of the voice. If we are in a state of fear or excitement the muscles around our voice box tighten, making our voice higher pitched. So even if we don’t understand the words someone is using we can tell if their mood or thoughts have changed.
Consider saying the following phrases with a different pitch:
‘It’s a scandal’. – Varying pitch could imply secrecy, hilarity or disgust
‘Just wait a moment’. – Varying the pitch could imply contained anger, or happiness
Be aware of someone’s pitch on the telephone, by listening to it you can gauge what their true thoughts are, even if the words don’t reflect it.
This is the speed at which someone speaks. Some people are naturally fast or slow speakers but speed of talking may also demonstrate an emotional state. An excited or elated mood is reflected in a quicker rate of delivery. A more serious of dejected frame of mind will be expressed in a slower delivery.
The caller’s pace can indicate the mood they are in when you speak to them, or if indeed it changes during the conversation.
Power is the emphasis or stress put on a word or part of a word by lowering or raising the voice. Emphasising a particular word in a sentence can change the meaning completely.
For example, say the following sentence seven times. Each time emphasise a different word. Notice how the meaning of the sentence changes as you change the emphasis.
‘I didn’t say your service was bad’.
I – I didn’t say it, someone else did.
Didn’t – don’t put words in my mouth.
Say – I might have implied it, but I didn’t say it.
Your – Not yours, the company’s.
Was – Not was – is.
Bad – Not bad – it’s totally unacceptable.
Listen carefully to where the emphasis is placed in the sentence to fully understand the message being conveyed. To ignore it could change the whole meaning of the sentence and you could end up talking at cross purposes.
This is when the speaker halts in their speech. It may be relevant to do so because they have finished what they are saying. Or it may be an appropriate time to take a breath. If several pauses are used before or after words it could indicate that the caller is displaying an emotional state of anger. Example:
‘I am… so… angry I can hardly… speak’.
Listen for pauses, are they conveying anything about the speaker’s message or current state of emotion?
Inflection is a change of pitch. Naturally we do not speak on one pitch level alone. The voice slides up and down the scale as we express various shades of thought and feeling.
Usually an upward slide or inflection at the end of sentence expresses a question or an uncompleted thought, and a downward inflection expresses a completed thought or instruction.
This can be described as the light and shade of the voice, which also demonstrates and displays emotion. The light and shade demonstrates warmth or coldness, smoothness or roughness, harshness or gentleness, tension or relaxation.
Most of us can quickly identify someone’s mood by the tone they use.
Example: ‘Oh yes, the engineer arrived’ said in warm tone implies a successful visit.
Alternatively, said with a cold tone it implies an unsuccessful visit.
Listen carefully to your caller’s tone to identify their satisfaction or dissatisfaction.
We pick up on these vocal characteristics unconsciously. By being aware of the way the words are being spoken you will be able to ‘hear’ what isn’t being said but the feelings and emotions being communicated. This is invaluable if you are to understand fully the purpose of your caller’s contact and move towards a satisfactory outcome.
Equally important to hearing and listening for vocal characteristics from your caller is the way you say the words you use during a conversation.
We have all spoken to people whose voice is devoid of any character.
In these instances the emotions they feel are controlled or easily disguised. They may speak monotonously, failing to change the pace, or employ the tactics of emphasis, tone or inflection. Talking to someone with little character in their voice soon becomes an effort and we switch off. It is also difficult to assess their emotions.
If you detect that the vocal characteristics conflict with the words the caller is using, investigate what they are saying. A simple way to do this is to reflect back the feelings that you’re picking up in the message by acting like a mirror. You reflect back on the emotions that you sense carry significant weight to the meaning of the message.
‘I sense you were a little anxious’.
‘Seems like you have some concerns’.
Your reflection is phrased in a question-like manner because you are inviting a response from your speaker. Confirming or clarifying what you think you heard is understanding gained right on the spot.
Keep the lines of communication open and improve the service you deliver to your caller by employing good vocal characteristics and listening to those of your caller.
Christine Knott is MD of specialist training company Beyond The Box.