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  • John Werner

Sound Messages in Public Spaces


Have you ever wanted to understand ‘the part of talk that is not the words’ or the ‘non-words’ we speak? I'm specifically referring to the volume, tone (of-voice) and speed of the words spoken. Let’s call them Sound Messages to make it easy. Sound Messages help us 'read between the lines' of a conversation and are audible clues to the emotional state of the speaker. They can also tell you if you have engaged your listener. Tuning into Sound Messages will help you be a more effective listener and communicator. I can teach you how to use Sound Messages in this way, but first let me share a story that illustrates why they matter to you.

“I….I……I want to.., I want to learn t…., I a want to learn to swim. I want to learn how to swim.” Sam stuttered (Sam’s not his real name). I had just finished a lap in the pool when I looked up and saw him. He was an older man, maybe ten years older than my 52 years. The woman next to me and I both responded, “Oh, you should take lessons here.” I even put my hand on his foot to give him some encouragement. “N…..N….No. No. No,” he replied. His hands went up with his palms facing me. With his head down, he backed away.

I thought of him while I finished a few more laps. Why did he talk to me? Perhaps he watched me from the water aerobics class he attended in the next pool. Then I figured out why. He wouldn’t feel comfortable with a teenage girl or boy teaching him how to swim. He may need a man closer to his age to help him learn how to swim. So when I saw him in the locker room, I volunteered to teach him. “I can start your learning how to swim. Would you like to try a few lessons with me?” “Yes,” he replied. “When are you at the pool in the morning?” I asked. “5 AM,” he answered. Ugh, I’m lucky if I can get there by 6 AM or even 6:30 AM. “Lunch time?” I asked.“ “OK, but I’m taking reading lessons after I leave the pool. I’ll be done by noon.” Noon was too late for my lunch hour. “How about we meet at 5:30 AM?” I compromised. “Okay,” he answered. “Hey, reading lessons sound great. What kind of work did you do where you didn’t need to read much?” I asked. “Glass manufacturing, we made windshields. I worked on the shop floor.” He paused, “I was denied reading as a child.”

Sam’s struggle to get his words out added more meaning to them. His volume was low, his tone was soft, and his word-speed was stuttered. These three qualities of his speech point to an expression of need. If I would have answered, "Oh, man up, dude. You can do swim lessons here," with a loud volume, a strong tone, and above normal word-speed, I would have discouraged him and come across as callous and indifferent to his unspoken need. Instead, I intentionally asked him if he would take a few lessons from me in relaxed volume, tone, and speed. In this case, he really wanted to learn to swim, but was afraid or uncomfortable with taking the first step. I’ve taught swimming skills to people of many different abilities and ages, so it was an easy decision for me to offer him some basic swimming lessons. He blew bubbles underwater, kicked with straight legs while sitting on the steps, glided with his face in the water and then, in the second or third week, I held him at his hips while he swam a beginning freestyle stroke. When we were finished, he was a solid beginning swimmer.

From my ability to listen deeply to his Sound Messages and ‘read between the lines’ of his initial reaction, we shared time together which made him feel safer in the water. I met an unspoken need of his – someone to personally guide him from where he was (wanting to swim) to where he wanted to be (a confident swimmer). This is a positive use of Sound Messages – meeting an unspoken need.

John Werner has degrees in Engineering, Music and Organization Development. He practices Sound Messages™ daily.

Have you asked someone to change the volume, tone, or speed of their words? What was the immediate result? Did you notice any change or improvement later? I learn from you, too; please share your thoughts in the comments section below.


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