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Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Weight of Your Words: Empowerment through Voice Tone

Speaking assertively is an art. Essential to that art is the use of voice tone.

I tell my students that your voice, in an assertive statement, should end with your tone going down at the end of your sentence. If you do not, then you will sound uncertain, less powerful, questioning your own stand.

A political year is a great time to observe this. I'm including in this post two videos - one of former President Bush and the second of President Obama. Both men are in press conferences dealing with difficult subjects. Listen to their voice tone through the taped conference.

Former President Bush was an interesting figure to listen to because he presented himself quite differently in voice tone in speeches than he did in press conferences. He had practiced speeches and had been coached. In speeches he generally sounded more confident. Why? Because in a speech he had practiced bringing his voice down at the end of the sentence.

He is asked hard questions in this press conference, which I believe took place in April 2007. Without the safety net of the practiced speech, you'll notice that his voice goes up at the end of the sentence. This makes him sound less sure of himself, somewhat defensive and does not make his audience feel confident in what he is saying.

He says things that should sound solid and confidential and instead his voice rises at the end of his sentences. In talking about the Iraq war, listen for him to say "We're going to succeed." with his voice going up as he says it. Then a few sentences later, voice rising again, he says, "I'm going to develop a plan that will help us achieve our objectives." But with that rise at the end, why should anyone believe that he believes he can do so. And so his approval ratings would decrease.

The press conference with President Obama took place in April 2008 when he had to disconnect with Reverend Wright. Obama is a polished speaker and speaks in general in a measured way. His voice often ends sentences down in a firm place. In this press conference at the beginning, his voice rises at the end of sentences. I imagine he was feeling a little defensive and less sure.

Suddenly he regains his voice and says, "...they certainly don't portray accurately my values and beliefs." With that phrase he asserts himself and his voice marches solidly down. This self confidence remains evident through the rest of the press conference.

Listening to the news media is another way to observe the power of voice tone. Most of our TV reporters have been trained to do this and as you listen observantly, you'll notice that they bring their voices down at the end of sentences.

While public figures give us ample opportunity for observation of voice tone, where it counts for each of us is in being aware of how we each employ the empowerment of our voice tone.

When you let your voice go up at the end of the sentence, you sound uncertain. If a person frequently ends on an up note, that person may be characterized as "whiny." A tiny child whines because he/she doesn't believe he/she can get what they want. By the same token a grownup who doesn't believe he/she can get what he/she wants, will sound whiny if their voice goes up at the end.

Get someone to listen when you are under pressure and give you feedback about your use of voice tone.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Gottman's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as Communication Barriers

In speaking up for yourself, the key element as I have frequently mentioned is RESPECT. If the communication between people is lacking respect, then the assertive connection will not happen.

John Gottman in Seattle, WA, has done extensive research on couples' relationships and has determined that there are four very destructive elements that can wreak havoc in a relationship. These he calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, in a Biblical reference. In the Bible the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are the precursors of destruction to come. In a relationship, Gottman says his four horsemen also are precursors of relationship destruction to come.

The Four Horsemen are: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. Because each of these "horsemen" are ways to react to your partner without respect either for yourself or the other person, they also apply to being assertive.

When you criticize the other person, you attack the other person's character, usually with the goal of pointing out how the other person is wrong in some way. This is usually experienced as demeaning and disrespectful.

When you use contempt, the word by definition means that you are looking down on the other person. If you are employing such disregard for the other person, you are not acting out of respect. Respect requires that you assume that the other person is worth knowing, and if you remove the respect and look down on the other person, the assertive connection is lost.

When you are defensive, the communication is broken because you are focused on convincing the other person that you are too right or that you did NOT make a bad decision, etc. When you move into defensiveness, you in effect erect a wall between yourself and the other person, disrupting the possibility of connection. In essence, the defensive person pulls for the other person to take care of him/her, disregarding the issue at hand.

When you are stonewalling, you are not open to any other view than your own. Again, this is not respectful because you are not allowing the possibility that the other person may have something to contribute that is of value. Usually stonewalling includes withdrawing from the relationship in a passive pull to get the other person to come over to your way of thinking. Stonewalling may also be used to avoid conflict.

Note: these four horsemen may be present nonverbally as well as verbally.
  • Criticism can be demonstrated non-verbally by shaking one's head "No" as the other person is speaking.
  • A prime demonstration of contempt is to roll one's eyes. Eye rolling implies that you have disdain for the other person.
  • Defensiveness can be read non-verbally if a person looks as if he/she is backing away or mentally warding off a blow
  • Stonewalling can occur non-verbally by leaving the room, refusing to speak to the other person, or muttering under your breath.
So in order to have an effective assertive connection, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as described by Gottman, cannot be present, either in how you act or what you say.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

A List of the Qualities of an Effective Assertive Statement

The January 2009 issue of Real Simple is devoted to lists. I imagine they chose this as a nod to the many life-changing types of lists people make in January - New Year's Resolutions, to-do lists, etc.

I feel compelled to join in the theme with my list of the qualities of an effective assertive statement. If you think you've said something assertively, it should have these aspects:

  • The statement should convey respect for yourself as well as respect for the person to whom you are speaking.
  • The statement should be simple:

    Example: "I want this to happen...." or "I don't want to do ......" If you add too many details, you lose impact.
  • The statement should not be blaming.

    "You made me feel XXX," is not an effective assertive statement because it blames the other person. "When XXXX behavior happened, I felt upset," is effectively assertive because it describes problematic behavior paired with your own personal feelings and therefore does not point fingers.

  • An effective assertive statement invites the other person to connect with you to work on the issue. An assertive statement is not designed to push the other person away.
  • An effective assertive statement is fact-based. This by definition usually precludes the use of absolutes in an assertive statement such as "You always...." or "You never...."

    "You always leave your coffee cup on the desk for me to pick up," is both blaming and absolute. A fact-based statement is: "When you leave your coffee cup on the desk, I feel angry."
Happy New Year!

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Water break

I own a house in North Georgia and went there over Christmas. The temperatures were low - about 27 degrees - and when we woke on the Monday before Christmas, we found that a water pipe out in the yard had burst. The scene was a frozen spray - looked lovely but represented a lot of wasted water.

My neighbor recognized the problem before I did and called the homeowner's association. They were anxious to determine if the problem were on my side of the meter or on the neighborhood side of the meter. Naturally they determined that the problem was mine.

My homeowner's association up there consists mostly of retired traditional couples. By traditional I mean that the man is the bread winner and the woman generally has had a less significant job, if she has worked outside the home. This is certainly true of the president of the homeowner's association.

Every time something has gone wrong on the mountain, all of the male homeowners confer, but I am not included. When the water pipe broke, long before I was contacted, several of the men had already decided what was to be done.

They called the plumber that the neighborhood association had used for some other events. The president of the homeowner's association who lives in south Georgia, called to inform me of this and to tell me that he and the other guys had decided that the problem was in my part of the pipe.

Oh, and by the way, he had already arranged for this plumber to come fix my pipe the next day and he hoped it would be OK with me. He actually said, "He can't come today because he's out on the golf course, (Ha Ha) - really he's fixing a broken pipe on a golf course." He encouraged me to figure out how to manage without water for the night.

At this point it was 3 PM and I had my family with me at the house, including a 2 year old. We didn't especially want to do without water for the night to accommodate a golf course and the wishes of the homeowner's association to line the pockets of the plumber they liked.

I've had a number of plumbing issues at my house and have a relationship established with a different plumber in the county. At 3:05, I called the plumber that I use and asked if anyone were available to do this repair. Here's what I said:

"We have a break in the water line at my house. The home owner's association has made arrangements with someone named D.S. to come in the morning, but I have a small grandson up here and wondered, given that I've had a long standing relationship with your company, if you could get someone up here to fix the pipe before nighttime. I'd really appreciate it."

The woman I spoke to remembered me and said, "One of our crews is coming in the door right now. I'll send them right up to your house."

The plumber was there within 30 minutes and the pipe was repaired by dark.

I talked to the president of the homeowner's association and told him I had gotten my own plumber who could come that night. He offered to cancel the one he was sending the next morning - fine by me.

Although I obviously feel some resentment that the men homeowners never include me in the decisions and talk to me as if they are patting me on the head, they have been of great help to me. If they notice a shingle has blown off the roof, they call me; if there's a storm on the mountain and a tree falls on my property, they call me. Most of the homeowners on the mountain don't live there full time, so their vigilance about my house is quite helpful to me. I am grateful for their help, and I did not in any way in this assertive interaction, say anything to damage my relationship with any of them.

In addition, I was respectful to the plumbing company that I did call. I really appreciated their getting right up to my house and while the men were working on the repair, I took hot chocolate out to them in the 27 degree weather.

As my son-in-law would say, "Everybody wins."

And at the end of an effective assertive interaction, that is how everyone should feel.