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Voice-only conveys emotions best

Less is more when it comes to decipher feelings



The widely held belief that emotions of any kind are determined best by facial expressions has ist weaknesses: a new serial of experiments from Yale University demonstrates doubtlessly how much easier feelings can be deciphered by concentrating 100% on the voice only, without being influenced by any visual detraction.

In 5 different experimental settings test persons had to watch dialogues which lasted 1 – 5-minutes long: live with light on, live in a darkened room, via a video, via a video with mute and via a video without pictures. Afterwards they had to name what sort of emotions they had apparently perceived while observing the dialogues and these details were compared with those of the 2 persons involved in the dialogues themselves. The higher or lower congruousness between these data determined the rate of deciphering and therefore the empathic accuracy of the test persons. The best results in empathic accuracy were accomplished consistently with all the voice-only settings. Pitch, cadence, speed, volume and content helped to identify emotions significantly better than facial expressions, gestures or other visual detractions: if you not only hear, but also see persons in a dialogue, you get the content up to 30% less and vocal cues for different emotions up to 40% less.

„Less is more“ the author of the study argues when it is key to capture exactly the emotional state of someone you observe. To rely on voice-only communication for empathic accuracy is sufficient – additional visual sources of information as facial expressions or gestures make the highly complex cognitive perceptual process even more complicated.

Voice-Only Communication Enhances Empathic Accuracy, Michael Kraus, American Psychologist, 2017, Vol. 72, Nr. 7, 644-654

From practice:

Fascinating: even if presentation charts are perfectly visualized, even if your outfit passes the test and your topic is currently talk of the town – with a small, low, monotonous, shakily or constrained voice your performance will not be perceived as masterful. This given, the power of voice is actually fundamental and I cannot point to it too often what a big impact your voice can make by energy, cool-headedness or passion at the decisive moments within your appearances, meetings or one-on-ones.

In parallel I am remembering countless phone calls where I am closing my eyes for focussing and I am pretty sure lots of people do it that way. And yes: by shutting off any visual detractions while talking to someone on the phone, only being exposed to the acoustics, you may be enabled to perceive the slightest nuance of emotional expression in the voice of your interlocutor.

The more I am questioning: what do the results mean for the majority of meeting where you definitely cannot close your eyes? Where the room, meeting participants and yourself are by definition visual detractions and 100% focussing on voices only is not possible? Aren´t in these cases facial expressions and gestures – body language – once again essential additional information which do help to decipher emotions of presenters and interlocutors alike?

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