Human beings read each other’s nervous systems in all moments, and our tone of voice shares the honesty of our feelings. As we communicate with one another, whether at home, school or throughout our communities, our lower regions of the brain (brainstem) are always detecting safety or threat from our environments and experiences. Neuroscientist and creator of the Polyvagal Theory Dr. Stephen Porges has defined this automatic brainstem reaction as “neuroception.” Neuroception is our unconscious barometer that is always scanning environments through a range of felt threat to felt safety. Our biology has evolved to include a pathway of nerves originating from the brainstem to the body. This bi-directional pathway is called the vagus nerve pathway, and it impacts or influences how our bodies and brains communicate with others, sending signals from the body to the brain and back down to the body, identifying “how” we are experiencing the environments, people, and conditions around us.
What we say matters. But how we say it truly does make a big difference!
The Social Engagement System
A newer aspect of our biology is referred to as the social engagement system. It impacts how we see, hear, feel, move our heads, and vocalize in relational environments. Therapist and author Deb Dana, LCSW, shares, “To locate your social engagement system, start by placing your hands at the base of your skull where your brainstem meets your spinal cord. This is the hub of the social engagement system. Now place one hand on the side of your face and the other hand on your heart. Imagine energy moving between your hands, traveling from your face to your heart and heart to your face.”1 It is through this face-heart connection that we tune into sounds that feel safe and welcoming, look for friendly faces, and tilt our heads signaling safety. Through our eyes, ears, voice, and head movements we are continually cueing safety or danger with other people.
When we feel connected and safe, our hearing attunes to the frequency of human voices, and we listen for sounds of connection from others. When we begin to feel or sense a threat, or anything or anyone that feels unfamiliar or unsafe, we intuitively listen for sounds of danger, and these tend to be perceived and heard as low-frequency sounds that can activate a survival response like “fight or flight” or collapsed and immobilized. Paraverbal understanding embraces prosody: the inflection and rhythm of the sound of a voice. We search and attune to the tone of voice behind the words before we search for what the words mean to us.
Our nonverbal communication with others cues safety or danger and our tone of voice matters more than the words we speak. The advent of Covid-19 has impacted our social connections and has left many of us worn out, emotionally fatigued, and responding to others in sharp, quick, and uneasy tones. Our dysregulated nervous system is contagious and students in stress often pick up on our infectious tones of voice. We unintentionally can co-escalate a child or adolescent, never intending for a conflict to worsen.
Our tone of voice is critical in our classrooms because it conveys our feelings.
As Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor shares, “we are feeling creatures who think, we are not thinking creatures who feel.”
Tone is Truth
Our tone of voice can tell the truth and our students know this, no matter the words we speak. Think of your tone of voice like a personalized vocal “fingerprint” that distinguishes who you are, allowing others to know how you are feeling and sensing any situation.
Our tones also carry significance because they project who we are as people. Human beings carry a negative brain bias; in states of heightened stress, we are quick pick up on negative tones, even to the point of reading neutral tones as negative. It is critical that we are aware of our tone of voice, checking in with ourselves before we speak, especially if we notice growing irritation or anger in our nervous systems. If a student is angry or defiant, functioning from his or her survival response, we can easily and quickly escalate one another. The more exhausted we are, the less tolerable we become. This 2021/2022 school year has left us anxious, worried, and wondering how we will move through a third pandemic school year.
Tones of voice carry approximately 38% of the feelings beneath our words.
Behavior management is about the adult nervous system. If we desire discipline that is preventative, relational, and aligned with our nervous system, it must begin with us. Words matter, but our tones tell the truth, especially when our words are not aligned with our prosody.
Here are some guiding questions for self-reflection for adults. These paraverbal educator check-ins may be helpful as we explore our sensations and feelings before we approach a challenging altercation or conversation.
- What is activating or triggering how you feel about this student, situation, or behavior? (Alone or with a colleague)
- What “story” am I telling myself that keeps reappearing in my nervous system activating a tone that feels destructive or negative as I may unintentionally move to survival states during this time or with this student? (Alone or with a colleague)
- What might I be misunderstanding about this student’s behavior? (Alone or with a colleague)
- What are the sensations I am experiencing from my nervous system that keep recycling (tight, tension, rapid heartbeat, hot, shallow breathing)? Can I align those sensations to the feelings I am experiencing? What color are those sensations? What shape? Where have they landed in my nervous system?
Research from the Polyvagal Institute shares that when we recognize our autonomic nervous system states, we create space in the body for psychological well-being.
Paraverbal Student Check-ins and Practices
Discussing how our tone of voice invites people into our lives, or unintentionally pushes them away, is a critical practice for students and staff to work through together, sharing authentic experiences while providing feedback to one another. This could take place during a morning or afternoon gathering, at the beginning or end of a class or school day, or when there has been a disruptive incident and we have an opportunity to share and repair. There are engaging ways to help students understand the importance of our tone of voice, and how it relates to others.
Here are a few examples to try out with one another:
A. Share the same sentence or phrase with a calm, angry, and then sad tone:
- Please share that with everyone.
- What happened to you?
- Follow me.
- I don’t know.
- What do you mean?
- I don’t understand.
B. Share what you notice about someone’s tone of voice when they are angry. How does his or her voice change? How can you tell when a friend is sad? What happens to their tone of voice?
C. When you cannot see someone but hear their voice, how hard or easy is it to know how they are feeling? Why?
As we think about the power of our tone of voice, we need to understand that we also communicate through sounds called “vocal bursts.” These are sounds like oh!, huh?, and hmm. They are communicated and understood across cultures—even across our entire species. Vocal bursts have been aligned with 24 emotions and this research is fascinating. This study identifies and maps the 24 emotions, as well as the aligned vocal burst first researched by Alan Cowen and colleagues from Stanford.
In conclusion, we are traditionally word focused. We pay more attention to our words than how they are received and interpreted. Relationships grow stronger when we become intentional and aware of the authenticity—the tone of voice—that lies beneath our words.
Dr. Lori Desautels is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. Lori was also an assistant professor at Marian University in Indianapolis, where she founded the Educational Neuroscience Symposium, now sponsored by Butler University. Lori has created webinars for educators, clinicians, and administrators illustrating how educators and students alike must understand their neuroanatomy to regulate behavior and calm the brain. You can learn more about her work at Revelations In Education.
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1 Deb Dana, LCSW, Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory (Sounds True, 2021)