Dr Louise Mahler explains to AHRI chairman, Peter Wilson, the truth behind body language, the art of breathing and why Obama is the master.
Peter Wilson: Louise, in part one of this interview you said the beginning of your pathway to Vocal Intelligence started at BHP, and then you went out on your own. How did you go about it?
Louise Mahler: I started speaking anywhere and to anyone who would listen. I presented to a tremendous amount of networking groups, sales groups and business groups. If it moved, I spoke to it.
I started and finished a Masters of Applied Science (organisational psychology), I was contracting in change management and customer service, and I was teaching communication at the Australian Institute of Management.
I was approached by the professors of psychology at the university, who said they’d like to give me a scholarship for a PhD to explore my face-to-face communication ideas further, combining arts (in particular opera) and business.
Vocal Intelligence evolved from psychologists Daniel Goleman’s framing of emotional intelligence and Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences. The vocal component refers to the mobilisation and expression of energy, emotion and personal presence through engagement with vocal processes; and the intelligence component refers to creating an effective expression of self. It’s the mind/body/voice cycle. Meaning that what happens in our vocal dynamics eventually echoes in our psychodynamics and back the other way. The body is the conduit between the two and where I put the work in.
PW: How do you break down a person’s Vocal Intelligence?
LM: We need to understand what we do automatically and what happens to our breath, body, mouth, throat, posture, gestures and movement. In order to change these things we need to have a change plan.
Each of us has patterns formed over our lives that are not effective – they never go away. In our early formative years, we lock in learnt behaviours as our strategy for managing conflict. And we rarely question it. You need to understand what those patterns and it is useful and sensible to build alternatives.
PW: We all get nervous, but what are some of the things we can do to manage it?
LM: When we become psychologically stretched, the body freezes, and the diaphragm goes rock hard and that influences the breath. The breath starts to go into the upper body and presses and squashes the throat.
When people get nervous they think that it’s their voice that shakes. But the reality is that voices don’t shake, whole bodies shake. And minds force them to shake. We just hear it in the voice. Voice is the thermometer of mental state.
Although these stress patterns happen, we have a choice to undo them. The old school would tell you to take a deep breath ‘in’, but if your diaphragm’s jammed you’ll only perpetuate the problem by pulling the tension into the upper body.
In other words, there is one technique for a relaxed situation. However, most people can’t work with that technique under stress. You need to do something else.
I work on a completely different process that I learnt in Vienna, which is about kicking the diaphragm free. It uses a Kapalbhati – an ‘out’ breath, not an ‘in’ breath. It involves quick breaths out which kicks the diaphragm free and allows the energy flow back into the lower body.
PW: You’ve studied Neuro Linguistic Programming and have worked with Black Saturday survivors. What did you learn from them?
LM: When we become stressed, our voice shut down. It’s the same as the drowning response.
A lot of Black Saturday survivors told me that they were also experiencing symptoms of losing their hearing as well, for which I discovered a little-known syndrome called Costen’s syndrome. This is about how stress can jam the jaw, which apparently can affect the ears. The instant cure, of course, is to open your mouth. Anything is worth trying!
PW: What’s your advice on managing voice through the physical postures people adopt?
LM: You need to have a rest, neutral position. For instance, you might have noticed that Joe Hockey never used to have a rest position. Now he does. Like Barack Obama, the body is balanced, giving two outcomes: you can breathe and you send no negative non-verbal signals to the listener.
To get this position: the feet are parallel, the knees are loose and the lower body is where the power is, so the lower back is flat, the chest is not lifted, but the sternum is forward rather than crouched backwards. The head is ‘on’ the body rather than forward and ‘off’. The mouth is slightly open, and the tongue is pressed to the top of the mouth. These things are hard to describe, but easy to see and work with in action.
PW: What’s your assessment of Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten?
LM: Firstly, I would like to establish that I know these people are not fools. They’re highly educated scholars and surely wonderful friends and family members, yet they do things that make them come across in a very odd way. Their physical and vocal strategies are undermining their true selves.
It is so easy to undermine public figures, but on the other hand, they are examples we all know, can all see and can all learn from.
Julia Gillard takes her power to her head and projects it forward for strength– that’s what I call ‘the chook’. The non- message is aggression, stimulated by a lack of security. This may not be true, but it is the habitual pattern she has stuck with over time.
Tony Abbott is one of the greatest air breakers in history. As he speaks his speech is stilted. And air breaking breaks trust! When we lie, we hold the air and only give it away in short bursts. This does not mean Mt Abbott is lying, but his habitual pattern gives that impression.
Bill Shorten is the master of the neutral position but is challenged by moving from that into situations where he has to express himself. Recently, he’s started to jam the jaw and he’s stuck with only moving his upper lip. Not a good look. Think rabid dog.
Whereas Malcolm Turnbull jams his neck. This means inflexibility and the slightly backward stance that he takes denotes arrogance. Not as bad as Peter Costello though!
PW: In the opinion polls for future prime ministers, Malcolm Turnbull rates extraordinarily high. What is his point of difference?
LM: In terms of the way we project ourselves, we all have different areas that we block, and Malcolm’s blockage is less than the others. By throwing himself back and having a stiff neck Malcolm reveals arrogance but his voice still comes out smoothly and in a round way.
PW: Who would you pick as a good example of an engaging leader?
LM: I can’t go past Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. Obama is the Michelangelo of body language. He’s always on two feet and, regardless of how sound is actually produced, one goes back to the sensations one feels and his voice has the effect of appearing to always be initiated from low in the body, as opposed to the upper body.
Obama’s throat is open. And having got the sound out, the air flows so that, as he speaks, it doesn’t break. As he engages power, he goes to his lower body and adds extra pressure under the air as opposed to the throat (which makes it a tighter, more aggressive sound). He also uses the voice of empathy, which is about escaping air through the vocal folds. Clever!
PW: What are some of the patterns you look for in picking up deception in others?
LM: You look for changes in voice. For instance, if my voice suddenly went higher in tone, that change of pitch is a dead giveaway of a change of thought. Another one, as we mentioned, is the blockage of air, where suddenly the sound stops coming out. The classic example is Bill Clinton’s stilted statement: I. Did. Not. Have. Sexual. Relations. With. That. Woman.
Clinton didn’t normally speak like that, but then he did. Not a good sign.
Dr Louise Mahler will be speaking at the 2014 AHRI National Convention & Exhibition. Her keynote presentation, ‘The missing leadership ingredient: Vocal Intelligence – making voice a choice’, is on 20 August 2014. Registrations close 7 August 2014.