I was listening to a speaker once, some time ago, in a community room at the top floor of a hospital. He spoke passionately and vehemently about mental health, about meditation, about positive thinking, and above all about community. I could hear his thoughts: I know the solution for you. I have overcome all you can dream of. I can be your guide.
His voice entranced, and I found myself wanting to believe. Surely there must be a simple solution to discontentment, to anxiety, to feeling isolated – these are with me still. The heartaches inside were in that moment were no longer beautiful, but the enemy, a cloud of terrorism sniping at me. And yet, after 10 minutes of a guided meditation, I found myself less peaceful. Feelings gathered: Resentment. Feeling manipulated. You don’t listen. Voices of my childhood, compounded with interest. Gathering myself later, I realised that this reaction wasn’t a problem, but a reflection of the actual dynamic, to the timbre of his voice and how things were said.
The voice is the primary means of relation we have. It’s how we make connections. It’s the impetus for learning how to truly listen to others, to be loving. It’s also how we influence and try to find a sense of power in this world. As such, everyone has tactics and communication styles they use when they’ve been disempowered, to try to find a sense of power again. It’s the double horns of a defence that can also be manipulation and control. Some do this unconsciously, some consciously. In response to others, we then have our own reactions to these games, or at least unconscious until we see what’s actually going on.
One of my favourite skills I’ve learned from acting is in the studying of people. What is someone’s goal when communicating? What’s the subtext of what they are saying? Sometimes 7% of communication is through the words; the rest is nuances in the voice and body language. Being conscious of the other 93% is the best tool I have for understanding dynamics and people at their essence.
The times I love both in watching others and in being with others are when things seem real. Conversation flows at its flowing, unmodified pace, without a seeming effort of anyone to appear to be someone else. The pace, tone, and intonation changes in sync with the emotion and what’s being communicated. There is a dynamism, flexibility and fluidity involved. When there’s anxiety, the voice is shaky and unprotected, perhaps quicker. When there’s disappointment, there’s that sense in the voice of having tripped, of falling down. When there’s joy, there’s a sunlight beaming in the voice.
It’s that sense of unprotectedness, ingenuous honesty and transparency of whatever’s there that makes me feel connected. Seeing another’s despair communicated makes me appreciate rapture even more. It’s the beauty of the human condition, a connection to a raw state. It’s not the forced connection of someone moulding themselves so as to relate, but the manifestation that it’s our bare humanness, as we are, that connects.
And yet, most of the time, we limit what we communicate. We put on masks. We have styles where we’re trying to protect ourselves or get something.
I want to identify some protection mechanisms I’ve noticed in the voice. These are ways of manipulation and control, the ways we aren’t natural. I find identifying them helps me let go of my own tactics and be gentle with myself in my reactions to others. (A gracious thanks to the theatrical vocal teacher Patsy Rodenburg for many of these concepts) Being aware of protection mechanisms can help one see “oh, I’m doing this, so maybe now I can let go – or at least laugh at myself for keeping doing it.”
Not all tactics are aggressive. In fact, most people in western culture have learned ways to defend themselves by non-aggressive or even withdrawing mannerisms. We have been taught suspicion of the used car salesmen, yet often have little awareness of how most subtler strategies can affect us strongly. Perhaps you can recognise yourself or someone you know in these.
I’ll start with the easiest one to recognise:
The Aggressive, Overbearing Speaker
This is the prototypical drill sergeant. The voice is usually deep and resonant, but always with confrontation at least implied. The chest is puffed up and the body leans forward, as if the person requires another to push back to keep their balance. While resonant and full, there’s little gentleness, nor room for warmth or sadness.
While this is the prototype for strength in military fashion, it also makes sure the environment is too unsafe for vulnerability. There is little room for compromise or friendship, but certainly room for fellow soldiers. Often it is a cover for emotions never felt and constantly kept at bay by the image of toughness and pushing others around through the voice.
While someone who hesitates and stammers may seem to be powerless, there is a hook – that the listener is left hanging, waiting for the next word, dangling onto a potential completed idea. In the pause that follows, the hesitator can gauge the audience and draw others in the direction they desire, albeit unconsciously. Even though there is discomfort in the hesitator, there is a power in making others feel they need to tread lightly for fear of blocking the next phrase. If a room is feeled with kind, gentle people the hesitator can steer a conversation in a manner that a clear, fluent speaker never could.
The manipulation is that we are made to think that words and thoughts are being created organically before our eyes and ears. We excuse the habit in order to be generous and because we think the person is naturally shy or reserved. Yet this hesitation can constructed carefully over years – even if unconsciously – in order to learn about others without revealing one’s self. It is useful in that it leads others to vulnerability and openness without having to reciprocate. One sided vulnerability is also an imbalance of power.
Otherwise known as the “de-voicer”, this is someone who goes quiet, either via a quiet voice or by simply not speaking. This is often used by guru-figures as a way of drawing people in.
It may not seem apparent as a way to manipulate others until you observe your own body in response to when you are trying to actively listen. By withdrawing and speaking more silently, the whisperer forces listeners to strain, to lean forward and to figuratively bow at his or her feet. It is de-centering to be around for a long time.
It can indeed be a hypnotic technique and is often used by executives, politicians, or theatre directors. Because it is more subtle (quiet voices are rarely perceived as dangerous) it can be more effective than being overbearing.
This kind of vocal manipulation involves abandoning clear and succinct language in favor of rambling thoughts. Buzz words obfuscating real meaning are often the norm. The language used can be learned and embellished, giving the impression of education and erudition, yet leaving the listener with no clear idea to latch on to.
Even more so, the listener can easily feel that they are at fault for not deciphering the message, and so can try to argue using the same language form which they are not nearly as comfortable with as the waffler. It can be a useful defensive habit to avoid answering direct questions or avoid unpleasantness, or even to convince others of something using impassioned, yet unclear words. This is a habit often cultivated by politicians, so-called experts in talk shows and doctors trying to avoid telling the whole truth.
The Role Player
The role player communicates as if everyone around them was the same. They have chosen a role – e.g., mother, helper, or coach, to use positive roles – and infuse their voice with this at all times.
Imagine the feminine presence of someone who addresses everyone around them as if they were a prepubescent child. The automatic reaction is either subservience or rebellion, both dis-empowering states. Or the counsellor who, through a lifetime of practice, has learned to infuse their voice as someone who truly loves and accepts all others, who contains nothing but love and compassion, irrespective of what they are feeling. I am not talking about a natural voice infused with compassion, but rather a constructed voice, an artifice. This creates a pied piper, hypnotic effect where the listener reacts as if it were true, that the speaker is indeed showing love at this moment and can be trusted.
Not all roles appear “positive”, but they all have one thing in common; it is an attempt to control how others react to you by inviting them strongly to jump into the role that matches what is played.
Deeper Connection Through the Natural Voice
All of these styles of communication are at the same time both weaknesses and sources of power. They enable us to make an impact of source, but also limit that impact to a vastly restricted playing field. They have usually developed over a lifetime, and as such they are not let go of easily, especially if there are rewards.
The problem is that in each of these, there is learned helplessness. There are always times where a soul-driven cry to speak is heard – and at these times, if our habits are too entrenched and opposite from the silent voice inside made vocal, we will be helpless. They atrophy our range and full humanness of expression. When we surrender to the monotonous use of a single habit in communication, we surrender many of our vocal rights and abilities to connect with others and be an active member of a community or family.
Again, it is through being ourselves, as fully as is humanly possibly, that we discover basic truths: We are connected at a deep, visceral level not through doing anything, but through being true and natural. Feeling loved grows from a foundation of being genuine. Warmth comes naturally when we’re being simply human, showing that there is basic goodness in however we are.