Permission to Speak: How to Change What Power Sounds Like, Starting With You
by Samara Bay
“What feelings are coming up right now?” you ask your client during a therapy session. At least, those are the words you say, but how do you say them? What’s your intention as you speak? How does that intention affect the tone and pitch of your voice, and what message does that sound actually send to your client, beyond your words?
Does your client feel joined by you in celebration of the great news they just received? Or invited to express the anger you sense they’re submerging? Do they feel inhibited by your earnest attempt to replicate the so-called neutral tone you learned from supervisors—which unwittingly reveals your own self-consciousness as you keep your voice from expressing a range of natural emotions and idiosyncrasies? Ironically, speaking more naturally could help your client recognize how they feel far more than your flat delivery of a stock phrase ever could. If only you trusted yourself!
Speech coach Samara Bay invites us to reflect on how we use our voices in her book, Permission to Speak: How to Change What Power Sounds Like, Starting with You. She brings a holistic approach to speaking—which incorporates linguistics, social psychology, performance theory, and social justice—to support people of diverse backgrounds and marginalized groups in breaking free from older, toxic models of power, so they can embody their voices in healthier ways.
Although this book isn’t a romance novel or a thriller, you may nevertheless find yourself binge-reading it on your subway commute home or while swinging in a hammock on a long weekend. Effortlessly and intimately, Bay weaves together social critique with compelling anecdotes and practical vocal exercises, creating a page-turning read that also feels like a personal coaching session. In eight accessible chapters, she emboldens us to recognize how our sense of self shows up in the ways we speak, breathe, and simply take space in a room—whether or not we’re aware of it—and to consider how our very presence affects other people. Having coached politicians, business executives, and Hollywood actors like Gal Gadot on forging connections with their audiences by first connecting to themselves, Bay encourages each of her readers to take space—mentally, physically, emotionally, and vocally—so we can make space for others to do the same.
Although this whip-smart, fun and funny, well-researched book may have been written for a general audience, mental health clinicians will undoubtedly find Bay’s insights refreshing and revelatory. As I read it, I was reminded that as therapists the most crucial instrument we bring to each session, with each client, is ourselves. And I was inspired to reflect on my own instrument in new ways, namely in terms of what Bay calls our voice stories: the often unconscious narratives about our voices we’ve absorbed throughout our lives “that can seem to be indictments against our accent, race, gender, sexual orientation, or perceived aggressiveness or overconfidence.”
Bay emphasizes that by identifying and challenging our voice stories—and by showing up as we are, as opposed to how we think we should be—we can create space for other people to join us. For therapists, this means that no matter how we were trained, what theories we like, or what “evidence-based” techniques we deploy in session, we must remember that more than anything, it’s how we show up in the room—including how we use our voices—that invites our clients to embody as much of their humanity as possible. As Bay says, “We must move ourselves before moving others.”
Upspeak, Vocal Fry, and Speaking in Public
But accessing our natural voice isn’t easy. The social systems of power into which we were born creep into our voice stories, inhibiting our ability to express the fullness of who we are vocally and to communicate our thoughts, feelings, desires, fears, and values authentically. Instead, we strive to sound “standard,” “neutral,” or “professional.”
Bay compassionately connects the dots between our vocal inhibitions and historical facts. I, for one, didn’t know that in 1900, “unescorted women in the biggest cities in the United States were not legally allowed into men’s domain—or what we might call today ‘the public.’” Women who were seen unescorted were known as “public women,” assumed to be prostitutes, and looked upon with contempt. Legal restrictions and social norms contributed to the policing of women’s voices, including by other women, to the point where women who dared to have convictions and speak up about them in public were viewed as untrustworthy. Bay links these historical facts to the social messages we continue to perpetuate today about how women and men “should” and “should not” sound in public.
Consider the rampant complaints about women occupying the public ear (as it were) using upspeak, an upward inflection in tone at the end of a phrase or statement, considered indicative of a lack of confidence, or vocal fry, the creaky sound a human voice makes when it lacks breath support, often interpreted as the speaker diminishing the importance of what they have to say. Consider the deep vocal resonance we demand of women in power if they want to be taken seriously (think entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes), and how critical we are of those same women for not being relatable (think Hillary Clinton). With such deep-seated and contradictory cultural messages to overcome, how are women, or men, or any of us, supposed to sound like our true selves? This book has some inspiring answers.
Our Voices Have Stories
Not only does Bay tell us how to sound authentic, she shows us. She shares her own voice story, which I won’t spoil here, as it’s best experienced in her own voice. What I will say is that her brazen openness models a way to free ourselves from any shame we may have about our voices, and galvanizes us to speak with genuine intention so that we can answer the questions: “Who gets to sound fully human? And who decides?” Which brings me to my own voice story.
Not unlike Bay, I learned to contort how I spoke from an early age. The world I grew up in warned me against sounding like myself (Google “gay voice” for more on that). If society doesn’t trust a woman who speaks freely in public, it wages war against men whose voices sound even slightly feminine (Google “drag queens in America right now”). When I wasn’t trying to butch-up my voice, I spoke softly—probably with vocal fry—or not at all. I feared the teasing and lisping and name calling I’d receive if I failed to guard myself. Then I became an actor and learned to play with different versions of myself, using different voices with every new character. When I entered grad school for acting (the same acting conservatory Bay attended, though at a different time), I was warned to speak with a “neutral” demeanor, even in my everyday life, if I wanted to work professionally. “Neutral” was a euphemism for the “standard American” speech of the cis, straight, white, gender-conforming males who are, as Bay writes, “what being taken seriously sounds like.” This voice story occasionally finds its way into my present-day life, including in the therapy room—for instance, with an uber-masculine, cis, straight, male teen named Zack.
When Zack and I started working together, I immediately found myself trying to be neutral (i.e., butch). Whenever we’d talk, the alarm bell of “Don’t sound gay!” went off in my head. You could argue that my instinct to cover my effeminate idiosyncrasies was clinically appropriate; after all, my intention was to prevent my own “stuff” from interfering with Zack’s process. But even though psychotherapy has become more relational since the days of the Freudian blank screen, therapists are still discouraged from taking up space in the therapy room with our whole being—“gay voice” and all. No one tells us to breathe into our authentic selves as we listen to our clients, trusting that this action alone can invite them to take up space in their own way. But as Bay says, “Silence and nothing but a room breathing can be surprisingly powerful. . . . Deep breaths allow us to bring our whole human selves into rooms that may not be ready for us and then teach them what’s been missing. That’s what changes the story.”
A deep breath, along with self-permission to be seen and heard exactly as I am, was indeed what changed the story for me and Zack. After reflecting on how my guardedness in Zack’s presence may have been exacerbating his reflex to be guarded with me, I decided to make a simple but powerful internal adjustment to how I listened to him. At the beginning of one of our sessions, I thought to myself, Here I am, Zack. I’m an effeminate gay man, and a lot more than that too, and I’m okay being in my own skin. In response to that thought alone, my body naturally took a full, expansive inhale. I felt my feet ground against the floor and my heart open. As Bay writes, “The best way to get in touch with your emotions is to get in touch with your body.” The best way I could get into my body that day was to decide that I belonged in it, and in the room with Zack, as a whole person.
This action alone seemed to invite Zack to connect to himself more, too: he reflexively took deep breaths in response. Something softened about his voice and body. An ineffable tension, which I’d been sensing in the room all along and had initially believed was solely generated by me, released. For the first time in our work together, he shared how terrified he’d been his entire life of “being lazy” and “undisciplined.”
“It feels like if I let go, I’ll drive the car off the road,” he said.
All of this happened without me having to say a word about my own internal process. This pivotal moment illustrates one of Bay’s most compelling insights: we needn’t express everything we’re intending to do, or say anything at all, in order to forge meaningful connections with another person. The point is to “show up as someone who doesn’t need to hide,” whether or not you speak.
As it turns out, Zack needed me to be my whole idiosyncratic self in the room with him; not to hide from him. He needed to witness a live example of how breathing into one’s vulnerabilities and fears can be grounding, as opposed to weakening or destructive, which is how he’d learned to think of himself whenever he was unguarded. As Bay writes, “If we breathe deeply and let ourselves be seen and heard, if we render ourselves truly knowable, we are committing a profound act of social change. We are breaking from tradition (maybe even our own family’s tradition), changing history, being a radical and a revolutionary. . . . It’s how we reshape the mythology about who gets to speak in public and how they get to sound.”
The Imaginary Ball Exercise
In addition to offering a revelatory way to think about and use our voices in session, Permission to Speak gives any therapist who speaks publicly (to fellow clinicians, students, or the media) a liberating perspective on how to show up, inspire, and lead others. How many workshops have you attended where a clinician reads their PowerPoint slides with a flat delivery, no breath support or pitch variation, and little eye contact with their audience? Conversely, how many talks have you seen given by therapists who emulate TED-Talk-style charisma—snappy cadences and all—but somehow still leave you feeling cold and distant? How many times have you been one or both of those presenters? I, for one, have been both. Several times.
Now imagine the same speakers doing one of Bay’s exercises before taking the stage. They might try, for example, the Imaginary Ball. For this exercise, you pretend to hold a ball in your hand, and as you throw it up to the ceiling, allow the pitch of your voice to rise up with it, saying, in my case, “Hello, my name is Mark.” You then go through the same steps while throwing the imaginary ball to the ground, allowing your voice’s pitch to drop with it. Finally, you throw the imaginary ball straight out in front of you, as far as it can go, allowing your voice to match its strength and range. This exercise can help you bring awareness to how you embody, use, and intentionally direct your voice.
When I tried this exercise, I found myself freely playing with possibilities and options, rather than attaching to one fixed idea of “good public speaking,” as I sometimes do. The most challenging part, I admit, was saying my own name. Even after decades of acting and public speaking, I still can’t even imagine introducing myself authentically without feeling vulnerable. But, as Bay’s book reminds me, our main practice—as people and professionals—isn’t to convince other people of our worthiness to be here. It’s to simply own the fact that we’re here—vulnerabilities and all. No matter who we’re speaking to—whether it’s other people in an office, on a computer screen, or on a stage—our will to be seen and heard as we are invites each of our interlocutors to recognize both us and them. Or, as Bay puts it, “to be a whole person in front of other people.”
Mark O’Connell, LCSW-R, MFA, is a psychotherapist and professional actor in New York City. He’s the author of the new book The Performing Art of Therapy: Acting Insights and Techniques for Clinicians, and writes for Psychology Today and The Huffington Post, as well as clinical journals.