In every agency I’ve ever worked at, there has been one person with great skills but poor voice tone and inflection. The Oxford language dictionary states that inflection can be the modulation of intonation or pitch in the voice.  I recall taking complaints on a dispatcher who allegedly sounded rude when talking on the radio.  I had been sitting right next to her on the specific radio transmissions that were being discussed and I didn’t hear what the officers heard.

We did two things to address that situation, I had the officers come in and sit in my office and listen to the dispatcher. They heard the alleged rude pitch in her voice.  Then they sat in the dispatch center with her and there was no tone.  It was determined that while sitting with her, the tone was “invisible” because you were in the physical presence of each other and could easily see she wasn’t being rude.  The second thing we did was play the recording for the dispatcher and ask her, if this recording was played in a courtroom, what do you think they would hear?  The answer was similar to, “Wow, I sounded really rude.”

That was one example, for those reading this there is probably one person that popped into your mind.  You cringe when you hear the tone in the recording, especially if the recording has been requested for release.  You have worked with the employee, perhaps you’ve tried the recording playback function for the employee to hear, had the employee acknowledge the tone, and still no change. The website for Thought Reach discussed the power of the voice and telephone etiquette, including voice inflection.  It talks about how an upward inflection is the high-pitched tone used in normal conversation when questions are being asked or there is surprise or suspense.

This pitch does not convey good customer service because it can lead to agitation for the receiver, and it displays a lack of confidence.  Lack of confidence from the caller toward the call taker, can tank a call quickly.  A high pitch can also elevate an already elevated situation.  “What, you’ve been shot?” you hear in a high pitched, very loud voice.  While priority calls can often bring out the loud voice at a high pitch it is also disruptive to your dispatch floor and does nothing to calm the caller down. A downward inflection is used when stating facts or trying to convey calmness.  Then there is the level inflection, a pitch right in the middle.  It displays disinterest and can enhance a caller’s agitation or spark it.

If you’ve ever seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, you might remember Ben Stein as the Economic teacher.  His voice is monotone, not high, not low, as he reads off the names, Bueller…? Bueller…?  Bueller?… (if you haven’t seen it, the movie is still fun to watch even after 35+ years).  The monotone can cause the callers to feel as if their call is not important.  For example a call is made for a loved one who has stopped breathing.  The call-taker responds in that flat, toneless voice – lacking empathy and the ability to firmly get control of the call.

At this point, most can identify with the dilemma of that one person.  How to change it is clearly a challenge.  Simply being aware of the impact the voice can have and how critical it can be as part of the useful skills in public safety can give the person the knowledge for the need to change and work toward the power to change it.  How we talk can be a habit, so change may take time.

There are some general tips for improvement such as practicing in front of the mirror and being aware of the speed that you talk.  Talking in front of a mirror helps you see what your facial expressions are and understand that body language impacts the voice.  A smile, for example, not only helps the speaker feel better, but it softens the sound of words that may come out harshly.

The speed or rate of speech is important, especially because in the PSAP environment, questions are being asked and instructions are provided in a non-visual environment.  More times than I can count I’ve been on the radio and an officer has asked me to check a plate (a vin is worse) and rattled off the numbers and letters so fast I was still typing in the first one when the officer finished.

Or the officer that was running repeated traffic stops and came into the dispatch center at his end of shift.  “You were so hard to understand tonight,” we told him, “it sounded like you had a mouth full of popcorn.”

He laughed and said, “that’s funny, I actually was eating popcorn!”

While we often can develop an ability to remember each digit, sometimes just a little slower would make a difference.  And although we may try to grab something quick to munch on while we are working, be aware of the amount of food put in your mouth.  You never know when the phone is going to ring.

Another technique is controlling breathing.  Emotions can be high during emergencies, empathy, frustration, fear each has an impact on the voice inflection.  Practicing slow, deep breathing can help the call taker remain calm and in control.  Deep breathing can also help eliminate some of the “filler” words because the call taker is not tightening up and with controlled deep breathing, oxygen is flowing freely to the brain.

Filler words used to give the call taker some time to think of what to do next or to stall for some time.  Think of the umm’s, uhhh’s, and okay’s (I once counted 42 okays in a two minute call). Filler words may have a place but when the call taker is using them to frequently stall they become a hindrance.

Put yourself on the side of the caller, calling 9-1-1 on a bad day, and you receive instructions so fast you couldn’t possibly remember them all; “pleaseunlockthedoorputawayfamilypetsturnontheoutsidelightsgathermedications and call me back if anything changes before paramedics arrive.”

Imagine receiving those instructions at a rapid pace in a monotone voice or muffled with food!  “Okay”, the caller replies when the instructions are finished… only catching a minimal number of the instructions.  Slow down and fluctuate the voice tone.  This will build the receiver’s confidence in you while you deliver the message.

Reminding your staff of how powerful their tone is in the non-visual environment of 9-1-1 will put that skill at the top of their thought processes.  For most, that will be enough, for those that need a little more – consider using some of the tips shown here.

Equature has recently released a transcription module.  One of the many advantages of this tool is the ability to release recordings completely transcribed, completely eliminating the tones and emotions from the call.  This can be very helpful when the information is important but the inflection can interfere with what is heard.

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