When compromised, our values can evoke strong emotions. It can be easy to react, but to retain professionalism and be heard we need to use our voice to speak up confidently, collaboratively and constructively. In this second audio interview, voice and executive coach, Susan Room, explores how we can get the best from our voice and ourselves when we’re ready to speak up for our values. Listen to the audio version below.
Alex: Hi, I’m Alex Duff and I’m back talking with leading voice and executive coach, Susan Room, about how we can better use our voice to voice our values at work.
Susan, we spoke last time about how to overcome some of those things that keep us silent, so what I’m hoping we can explore today is how we get the best from our voice and ourselves once we’ve decided to speak up.
Susan: That sounds great, Alex. Thank you. It’s wonderful to be back talking to you. What we’re really talking about here is how we sound and show up when our values are being challenged.
For me, when we’re invested in our work, we’re also invested in the organisation and the people we’re working with. So, if their values fall out of sync with our own, we might, understandably, feel frustrated, upset, even angry.
And those emotions can blur our thinking and cause our voice to do unhelpful things - become high pitched, speed up, sound breathy, for example. There’s nothing wrong with emotions – they are very real and they need expressing. But how and when we do that matters, for me, especially in the workplace where emotions often run high, particularly at the moment, with pandemic pressures and all the other pressures the world and we as individuals are under. What we want to avoid, I guess, is speaking in a way that damages our professional reputation and relationships.
Speaking confidently, collaboratively and constructively probably keeps us off the ‘drama triangle’. Actually, perhaps our next conversation could be about that, Alex?
Alex: That sounds brilliant…
Susan: ….just to go back and say… it’s much more likely to move things in a positive direction if we can speak with that confident, collaborative, constructive tone and style.
Alex: I love those three Cs - how we, you know, use our voice confidently, collaboratively and constructively. Can you share any insights on how we go about doing that?
Susan: Happily. I think it might help to consider them in reverse order actually.
Alex: Okay then, let’s start with using our voice constructively.
Susan: Well, interestingly, I’ve been looking at this…the origin of the word ‘construct’ is ‘to heap together’ or, perhaps the one we are most likely to know is, ‘to build’.
I mention that because a good way to take the heat out of emotional conversations is to add something that builds on what’s already been said.
So, I know when I’m feeling ‘reactive’, I try to pause and ask myself: “How will what I’m about to say build on what I’ve just heard to move things forward?”
Because, you know, if it doesn’t, what’s the point of saying it? I’d only be raising my voice (and likely my pitch too) to add to the noise.
If what I want to say does move things on, then I’ll go ahead and say it. And that will usually make me and other people feel good.
That’s not really a silver bullet though, because my voice will leak information about how I’m really feeling. So, if I’m feeling judged or irritated or criticised – then people will hear that in my voice when I speak, if I’m not careful.
So another thing I do is pause.
I try and put myself in the shoes of the person or people I’m speaking with.
I think: “If I were in their position and I was hearing this, how might I feel and react. How might I perceive me”? That’s a great question to reflect on!
What I’m doing, in fact, is slowing myself down to move from a reactive state to a more responsive one, so I can think about my words and how I say them.
You know, I may feel very strongly about something, especially personal values being compromised, but what I want to do is share my perspective or my problems with what I’m hearing or experiencing in a way that remains professional and builds a better outcome, at least in the workplace.
I suppose what keeps me focused is the knowledge that I’m less likely to achieve a positive outcome if I sound, for example, accusatory or defensive.
Let’s see. What else? Another thing I do, whenever possible, is give myself time to prepare and rehearse in advance, especially for conversations which I know might get emotional, and if the circumstances allow.
Whether that’s possible or not (to prepare and rehearse), when I begin to think about who is receiving my message, it naturally leads me to consider the second ‘c’, in other words the collaborative point - how can I best use my voice in a collaborative way?
Behind that I think is, I don’t only need to be ready to voice my ideas, insights or perspectives – I also need to be aware that the person or people I’m speaking with may or may not be ready to hear them.
Implicit in this word collaboration is equality, which in turn, at least for me, implies respect, which needs to run both ways to produce rich conversations. So, while I might be ready to speak up right now, is this the best time and place for the other person to hear me?
And then, given a constructive conversation is two-way, is now the right time and place for me to listen - genuinely listen, without judgment, to others’ values, opinions or explanations?
I think this is incredibly important when we’re working internationally, because personal values are so culturally sensitive and diverse. We need to give others the opportunity to speak up, to hear what they say, to test our own assumptions and challenge our understanding around other people’s values – the values we hold are very personal, unique – they’re not universal.
Alex: What you say about finding the right time and place holds a lot of resonance with me.
I’ve written about this before but earlier in my career I was really horrified by a leader who refused to pronounce the name of a colleague properly and he did so in a departmental meeting and I immediately used my voice to call him out on it because I felt strongly it was disrespectful to deliberately change someone’s name.
It was a name that wasn’t even difficult to pronounce.
My comment was met by very awkward silence, followed by him waving his hand away with that nervous laugh you sometimes get. And he moved on with the agenda, just ignored the point.
Despite it being such a long time ago, I often reflect on that moment. It’s really stuck with me over all these years.
It definitely wasn’t the right time or place for me to voice my concern.
I clearly embarrassed him in front of his team.
Subsequently, he never truly heard the positive intent of my message, and he never did stop mispronouncing my colleague’s name.
I mean, it wasn’t a complete failure because others in the team did do that, but if my purpose was to encourage that leader to lead by example – my choice of time and place was clearly off.
I’d like to think today I’d handle that situation differently, to do as you’ve just suggested Susan, perhaps to have had a quiet word after everybody else had gone.
Susan: Thanks for sharing that Alex. I absolutely can think of examples of that happening to me as well. I’m really careful these days about inviting people to tell me how to pronounce their name if I’m not too sure, rather than take a stab at it and feel embarrassment. So yeah, great example of how these things can play out in practice.
Alex: That leaves the third ‘c’ and how we can have confidence in our voice and sound confident. A little earlier you said when it comes to talking about something potentially emotive, like compromised values, our voice can let us down. Can you give us any examples of what that might sound like?
Susan: Of course. How our voice can let us down doesn’t always happen in the same way, at least in my experience.
Sometimes we might feel breathless or breathy – almost as if we don’t have enough air in our lungs to finish our sentence, which of course if we’re speaking very quickly is probably going to be the case. That heightened energy which can make emotional conversations even more emotional.
As can a voice that sounds wobbly, or shaky or unusually high pitched.
I’ve even witnessed some people sometimes form a word, but it comes out without any sound. I can’t demonstrate that, unfortunately, because there is no sound, but I think many listening to this will have experienced it and will know what I mean.
Alex: So, what can we do to prevent that from happening?
Susan: One way is to warm up the voice before speaking.
Just as you’d see athletes warming up before a race, or orchestral musicians warming up their instruments - tuning their instruments - if we’re going to speak with confidence, we need to have confidence that our voice will perform when it matters. Part of that is warming it up.
Let me share a couple of exercises that are helpful for this.
The first is a breathing exercise. I call it 'The Container' and it starts by visualising your torso as a container for your breath.
Imagine your torso is a fuel tank and the aim of this exercise is to fill that fuel tank up with breath.
You can do this just before going into a meeting and it has numerous benefits, because when we have more breath we are going to speak more confidently, we’re likely to calm our nerves if we are breathing more efficiently and effectively and we are also going to free the voice up so it’s going to sound more confident, more credible.
So this exercise is a simple four step process – I hope you’re going to do it with me Alex, and our listeners too. You might want to do it seated, as we are now, as it can make you feel a bit lightheaded.
Firstly, let’s put our hands in a dome shape, so the palm of one hand over the fist of the other hand, then place that dome at the top of the breast bone, above the tummy - that’s roughly where your diaphragm is.
Now let’s roll our shoulders very slightly back just to open up the ribcage, keeping our spine nice and straight, and releasing any tension we notice in our muscles especially our belly muscles.
Next, let’s gently breathe in, ideally through the nose, and, as we do, let’s push and flatten our hands down towards the belly, effectively simulating what the diaphragm does when we breathe in – it goes down to allow space for the ribcage to expand and fill with breath. OK. Now, we’re going to breathe out and as we do, slowly bring our hands back to the starting point, simulating now the diaphragm going up, and feeling the breath flowing out from the nose.
If you repeat this for about a minute, you should begin to feel calmer and more confident.
The second exercise, this is a fun one, I call ‘Hum and Gum’.
All you need do is press your lips together and hum [demonstrates]. Like that. You might want to have a little playful hum [demonstrates], where your pitch is going up and down, and when you’ve started humming, [demonstrates], I want you to add to that the motion of chewing a piece of gum, which becomes [demonstrates]. You can hear how the sound changes while I’m chewing that piece of imaginary gum. Now, you might feel a little bit awkward doing this, and you’re probably not going to want to do it in front of many people! But enjoy having fun with it because doing this will warm up your facial muscles, that’s the chewing part, and also the vocal cords, which need to be making great contact in order to produce clear, confident, non-shaky, not wobbly, stable speech. So those are a couple of reasons for doing that exercise and that will definitely reduce the likelihood that your voice is going to sound wobbly when you speak.
Alex: Thanks Susan those are both brilliant practical exercises. I particularly love the 'Hum and Gum'. They are great for prepping our voices to speak, but is there any element of voice that we should focus on to continue sounding confident once we’ve started speaking?
Susan: Well, there is so much I could say about this. Gosh. There are different elements to voice and each one can help us sound more confident. There’s pitch and tone and pace and intonation and volume and resonance and many, many more.
But if I had to pick just one, I guess it might be tone, because tone conveys our attitude to our words and to others. So, if we are feeling warm towards someone our tone when speaking with them will sound warm. Likewise if we are feeling irritated, our tone might be abrupt, sarcastic or angry.
That’s really the tip of the iceberg; tone is very complex not least because different languages use it in very different ways.
Generally though, we could say that tone can transform the meaning of our words and particularly it can distract a listener from what we are saying. If there is a mismatch between the words and the tone for example, listeners are far more likely to be focused on the tone and it won’t feel sincere or authentic.
I think at the end of the day if we want to sound authentic, and convey respect for our listener and give them confidence in our message, then what we need is a confident, warm tone of voice. I’m really hoping some of the exercises and insights I’ve shared in this conversation with you Alex will help people listening to it achieve that.
Alex: Thank you Susan. I absolutely think it does. And I think that feels like the perfect place to pause for now so thank you so much.
Susan: You’re so welcome. And maybe over the summer we could explore some of these other vocal elements and how they can help us maximise our impact – our vocal impact – and also perhaps we could do something with the ‘drama triangle’?
Alex: Yeah, brilliant sounds terrific. Speak to you soon.
Susan: OK Alex. Thanks so much. I’ve really enjoyed today.
Susan Room is a former corporate leader, turned voice and executive coach. One rare few qualified to provide voice and executive coaching, her unique approach and her Make Your Mark programme now sees her help others feel, look and sound confident – improving performance and happiness at work.
Susan was interviewed by Communications Advisor, Alex Duff.