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December 1 2010

Trust Research

Varying pitch and volume can help build rapport, research by Williams shows

Michele WilliamsSo many insecurities, so little trust -- in today's stressed workplace, pitch and volume of conversations matter.

"If you trust more, you use more emphasis, which is a combination of loudness and pitch," said Michele Williams, assistant professor in ILR’s Department of Organizational Behavior.

"A range of volume and pitch is important -- it helps the listeners by saying 'this is important.' If you’re really interested, it’s very hard to speak at the same level," she said in an interview.

Williams and colleagues at MIT used observation and vocal recordings -- sorted by computer algorithms measuring pitch and volume – to follow information transfers among 29 nurses in the break room of a 30-bed surgical unit of an unidentified New England hospital.

Trust communicated through emphasis helps drive accuracy -- an important implication for hospitals, where communication breakdowns are considered the cause of most preventable errors, said Williams and MIT researchers Benjamin Waber, John Carroll and Alex "Sandy" Pentland.

"Once people try to understand each other, they start to communicate more clearly," Williams said.

The findings, detailed in a paper entitled "A Voice is Worth a Thousand Words: the Implications of the Micro-coding of Social Signals in Speech for Trust Research," will be published next year by Edward Elgar Publishing in a book on researching trust.

Williams was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University when she first became intrigued by trust.

Working in the campus hospital, she was alarmed by how much conflict was exchanged by doctors, nurses and therapists.

She went on to build much of her career as a social scientist around the issue of workplace trust.

"Few people think about the information carried in their voices," Williams said.

When not under stress, practice communicating trust with your voice, she advises. Then, you'll be ready to communicate trust when you need it most in the workplace -- when competing insecurities collide.

"It is much harder to repair trust, than to build and maintain it," Williams said.

Workplace hypervigilance such as copying numerous people on an email, monitoring tasks of others and second guessing sap mental energy, she said.

A more constructive way to build trust with co-workers, Williams advises, could be paying attention to the way you talk.