A Crash Course in Decoding Voices at Work

Want to know what your boss really thought of your idea? Or whether your employees respect you? Pay less attention to their words and listen to their voices. “They’re leaky,” says Allison Gabriel, an associate professor of management at the University of Arizona. “Underlying emotion leaks out, even when outward displays may be pleasant or smiling. Voice is a hard channel to regulate in terms of emotion.” So unless your co-workers are trained voice actors, it will be tough for them to hide their true opinions, whether about profit targets, a company retreat plan, or that new wall color.

Decoding isn’t that hard, says Alan Cowen of Hume AI, a company that uses recordings of voices to teach software such as digital assistants to recognize emotions. He’s mapped thousands of vocalizations and speech-pattern recordings, revealing the meanings in the volume, tone, inflection, cadence, and pauses. “There aren’t many experts who are better at decoding emotional expression than laypeople,” he says.

When we listen only to the words being uttered, we miss a lot of valuable information, says Joe Navarro, who served for 25 years as the FBI’s expert on body language. Going beyond the content of a conversation, he says, can reveal much more about the speaker. “How experienced are they?” Navarro says. “Do they see themselves as equal or subordinate or superior? How are they feeling?” That can help facilitate a stronger connection: A New York accent might be met with East Coast slang and a joke about dismal subway service; a worried voice might be met with concerned, urgent tones. “There’s no better way to establish harmony than mirroring their cadence,” he says. “The more you mirror, the more in synchrony you are.”
 
When you hear: Hesitation
It suggests: Apprehension, or perceived subordination. Even short pauses can reveal discomfort.
 
When you hear: A cough or throat clearing
It suggests: The speaker wants to broach a difficult or controversial topic or is reluctant to reveal something.
 
When you hear: Fast breathing
It suggests: Stress or anxiety about the current situation.
 
When you hear: Uptalk
It suggests: This “Valley girl”-speak, with rising pitch that can make declarative clauses sound like questions, often implies tentativeness or nervousness.
 
When you hear: Slow, deliberate pace
It suggests: Pensiveness. The person is carefully choosing words and cares about precise communication.
 
When you hear: Stretched, lengthened words
It suggests: Superiority. “Riii—ght?” vs. “Right?” (If you’re not sure, hum the tones to yourself without the words).
 
When you hear: Fast, machine-gun cadence
It suggests: Rattling off information, this person is comfortable throwing out ideas without much need for deliberation.
 
When you hear: Animation
It suggests: Passion about or personal connection to the topic, usually paired with arched eyebrows—the exclamation points of the face.
 
When you hear: Emphasis
It suggests: The speaker’s true feelings. “It. Is. Good” vs. “It’s good.”
 
When you hear: Big exhale
It suggests: Cathartic relief after something difficult is said.
 
When you hear: Hard swallow
It suggests: Stress about what was just said.
 
When you hear: Tension
It suggests: Psychological discomfort from the conversation or the situation. The voice sounds strained, tight, or pressed as the muscles around the larynx tense up.
 
When you hear: Loud volume
It suggests: Although this can vary by culture, speaking loudly can betray strong feelings on the topic, often either anger or excitement.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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