What your voice in the workforce says about you

Kate Laws

By Kate Keaney

05 Mar 2019

In the workplace a lot is achieved through face-to-face discussion. Have you ever stopped to consider how well you are doing this? We examine why it’s important to assess your communication and influencing skills at work.

Womens Chatting

When it comes to business, talk isn’t cheap. From the board room to the shop floor, the way we speak and how it is received by others is a big deal because it’s ultimately how we get things done.

Talk provides the questions, the narrative and the direction that drives organisations and makes things happen – from building relationships, delivering change to making sales and servicing customers.

How can we measure the way we talk and the impact it has on the people around us? And what does the way you talk at work say about you?

We all have a unique and largely unconscious pattern of ‘voices’ that shapes the way we talk. We may describe ourselves as open or consultative however have you stopped to consider what you actually say to achieve a consultative style? What voices are you using to come across as open and engaging, and, importantly, do others hear you this way?

What are the voices that we use?

The voices that we use can be grouped in three as follows:

  • Exploring voices – inquire, probe, diagnose
  • Positioning voices – advocate, advise, articulate
  • Controlling voices – critique, challenge, admonish (to direct)

Naturally we are not conscious of how much or little we use these voices - scientists have found that like a complete set of golf clubs, which you take on to the course to be ready for any conditions or weather, you need a complete set of voices in your communication kit bag so that you can have powerful impact and influence wherever you go.

We all have a unique and largely unconscious pattern of ‘voices’ that shapes the way we talk.

Many organisations we work with tell us that helping their people improve their communication, influencing, customer service and sales impact is their number one priority. Having a dexterous communication style is critical to being a strong leader and underpins resilience. These organisations are starting to see the benefit of using tools that assess how competent their people are at talking.

For individuals, it gives them meaningful personal insights and practical guidance on how to use the findings to improve their performance.

At a team, department or company level it describes the patterns and culture of communication that exists between people. More importantly, it reveals the voices that are under used or missing and need to be developed.

Having a dexterous communication style is critical to being a strong leader and underpins resilience.

After assessing the voices of about 100 internationally based people, one organisation found that their entire team of health and safety officers were missing the exploratory voices of inquire, probe and diagnose, which were essential as they moved to new roles as health and safety business partners. They had developed the more directive voices of advocate, advise, challenge and critique, which was not unexpected in terms of how they operate.

But they needed the consultative voices at their disposal if they were going to support the business in a much more strategic, consultative style. By gaining this key insight across the whole team the organisation was able to create a development programme that supported each of them to gain these voice skills. 

In our experience, it is often about highlighting the voices that individuals don’t use as much as the ones that they do. Have you wondered why certain people don’t challenge whilst others seem to love it – particularly when they are under pressure for example?

Here comes the science bit

The challenge voice, for example, is not heard by others because it is happening in someone’s head and not said out loud. This is what psychologists would refer to as ‘inner speech’. Psychologists have argued that inner speech develops by the internalisation of ‘external’, out-loud speech and it involves physical movement.

When people speak to themselves they make small muscle movements in their larynx. Neuroscientists have used brain imaging to show how areas like Broca’s area, which is linked to speech production are also active during inner speech. If certain voices are suppressed or people continue with a limited repertoire, the risk of error, confusion, duplication, frustration, and a lack of engagement is high.

How many times have you come away from a discussion thinking there had been one agreement made yet others thought it was something entirely different? Perhaps the conversation was described as ‘going round in circles and we still didn’t agree on anything’.

Have you heard the one about the offensive colleague?

There are no rules for how self-aware people are of their voice at work. It is easy to get it wrong. We can all think of someone who thinks they are very funny in the office but often isn’t – even being rude and offensive.

Many organisations are choosing to use voice competency tools that ask their people to assess their own speech and also ask their team members, managers and peers to do the same. This gives an individual a holistic view of their voice and the impact it has on others.

Some individual’s pattern of voices will emerge differently under pressure. Some voices become dominant, like a set of crutches.

This self-awareness is important – the perception we have about our voice can be wrong. To inquire is the most open, inclusive voice that we all use every day. It is about asking without preconception – ‘How are you doing, today?’ for example.

But it is important to remember that repeatedly inquiring might lead other people to feel you are interrogating them. What are people actually hearing when you talk to them?

When you move to the less socially acceptable voices like challenging or critiquing someone you can naturally be experienced as attacking or criticising someone respectively.

Under pressure

The way people talk under pressure will change. People who find it uncomfortable to challenge or critique may not use those voices at all if they feel stressed. However, under pressure these controlling voices may be the most important voices for relieving the pressure.

If certain voices are not being used, then why aren’t they? People may be sensitive to using particular language or simply feeling inhibited. Some individual’s pattern of voices will emerge differently under pressure. Some voices become dominant, like a set of crutches.

You may have two sales team members who challenge each other when they are feeling stressed. With the absence of any exploring voices it is unlikely they will reach an effective solution and are likely to end up in an aggressive stand-off.

And it’s not just face to face speech that is affected. Call centre employees experiencing pressure on call rates may skip over the exploratory voices that engage the customer. They might move directy to a solution that is wrong as they have missed critical information.

What your voice says about you

The way you talk can often reveal things about your work environment. It can be used to explain differences between individuals working in the same profession for example. A GP may speak using mainly exploring voices as they seek to find out and successfully diagnose what is wrong with a patient.

A surgeon however, may speak with more controlling voices as he or she looks to manage a risky part of the patient journey during an operation. That is fine and is what we describe as being dexterous with our voice. This means it can suit different situations, needs and styles to get the best outcomes.

We can all change the way we talk. Understanding the voices you currently use and the way they land with other people is a great way of making necessary changes with a great degree of confidence.

Girl talk – or boy talk?

Research has discovered that individual personality is a bigger differentiator than gender when it comes to assessing the way people talk. But, there are statistically significant differences between men and women.

Distinctively ‘male’ voices include admonish, advocate, challenge, critique and diagnose while enquire is the lone distinctively ‘female’ voice.

Men may make too much noise and women’s voices get lost in that noise.

Other provocative generalisations that have been made are that men are too quick to decide, they focus on building positions rather than relationships. Men may make too much noise and women’s voices get lost in that noise. Equally, women may contribute to their own silencing by drawing on a deferential range of ‘voices’.

These powerful insights have given an additional perspective to the glass ceiling debate and we can work with individuals to uncover the prevailing ‘talk’ and help everyone enhance their communication to get better results.

Summing up

The way we talk to each other has immediate and lasting consequences. Your voice will influence how other people think, feel and behave.

If you are a leader or manager this is powerful stuff. It can have a huge effect on the people you talk to and how they perform.

Consider how aware you are of your current style and whether you should be paying more attention to how you talk and how your patterns of talk are received by others.

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