Using voice alone could be the key to greater emotional understanding: Research

Video calling has brought face-to-face interaction to our smartphones and computer screens, however voice-only communication may allow employees or clients to better pick up on the speakers’ emotions, according to a new Yale School of Management study.

The study, undertaken by Yale School of Management assistant professor of organisational behaviour Michael Kraus and published in American Psychologist, points to tone of voice, rather than facial expressions, potentially being the primary conveyance of speaker emotions.

“There’s now a lot of discussion about how to look more confident, or how to hide certain less desirable emotion states by using non-verbal communication,” Kraus says.

“There is a chance that people might mislead listeners with their non-verbal communication. Misleading people through vocal expressions is more unlikely because controlling vocals is much harder to do.”

The study involved Kraus and his colleagues presenting online participants with different versions of a short video, which showed a group of friends talking and teasing each other over a nickname. One set of participants watched and listened to the video, while the second only listened and the third only watched.

The participants were then asked to rate the feelings being experienced by the friends, with the audio-only participants making more accurate assessments.

Another experiment saw students chatting about their movie or TV show preferences, along with what food and drinks they liked, both in a lab and in a darkened room, then rating their partners’ emotions. The study found that students conversing in the darkened room were better at reading emotions.

A final experiment involved online participants listening to a digital voice reciting the teasing interaction by the friends from the previous experiment. The goal was to test whether it was the words or the voice that participants were picking up on, with the artificial voice faring the worst of the lot.

“The difference between emotional information in voice-only communication by a computer versus a human voice was the largest across all studies,” Kraus says.

“It’s really how you speak — not just what you say — that matters for conveying emotion.”

It may be that speakers are less capable of changing the tone of their voice to mask feelings, while at the same time, when focused only on audio, listeners are less distracted.

“There’s an opportunity here to boost your listening skills to work more effectively across cultures and demographic characteristics,” Kraus says.

“Understanding other people’s intentions is foundational to success in the global and diverse business environment that characterises both the present and the future.”

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