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Voice Effects

November 12, 2018

You probably never thought about lowering your voice during an argument. You probably never heard about the power of reducing your volume when tempers flare and emotions spill over. Here's what you need to know:

Raised voices are a common part of couple conflicts. Who, when feeling upset or angry, hasn't at some point trumpeted in raised volume, perhaps even yelled, shouted or screamed? When we're loud, our partner feels threatened, the brain operating no differently than it did when our cave-dwelling ancestors poked their heads out of the cave and encountered a lion's roar. Threat triggers the innate and automatic fight or flight response, mediated through the amygdala, commonly called the emotional brain. When the amygdala is activated under a threat, chemical hormones are released — adrenaline and cortisol — creating physical changes (heart rate, breathing, tightening around the jaw) that prepare us physically and emotionally for fight (hitting back with our own harsh words or loudness) or flight (going silent or withdrawing altogether).

Moreover, an activated amygdala disrupts the neural pathway to the prefrontal cortex, the site that regulates reason and judgment. Our best thinking goes out the door; empathy skills diminish. Only our perspective matters as we aim to win, not to listen or understand or compromise. Poor odds now for conflict resolution.

But there's a powerful alternative: lowering our volume. It throws our partner off guard — we expect raised, not lowered, voices during an argument — and therein interrupts customary expectations, as well as the flow. The words we utter sotto voce stand out and apart, receiving more and better attention. Especially if we follow an almost-whisper with words of understanding, demonstrating our recognition of our partner's point of view, we’re more likely to receive the same in return.

By introducing calm in the midst of a storm, our lowered volume invites both of our amygdalas to settle down. Both? Research has found that while our emotional state shapes our behavior, the reciprocal is also true: our behavior shapes our emotional state.1 When we observe ourselves acting with calmness and reasonableness — a lowered volume during an argument — our own emotions seem to take the cue and follow suit: we ourselves start to calm down. Lowering our volume invites both of us into a less activated, less triggered state. It all bodes well for more positive outcomes.

References & Citations

1Costa, Jean, et al. “Regulating feelings during interpersonal conflicts by changing voice self-perception.” Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, paper no. 631, doi: 10.1145/3173574.3174205.