If someone asked you how important your voice is in your therapy sessions with clients, what would you say? Maybe you’d answer, “My presence is important, not my voice.” Or maybe you’d say, “I focus on my client and what they’re saying, not on what I’m saying or how I’m saying it.” Or maybe you’d respond, “My voice conveys my authority in the room, so in that sense, it’s important, but otherwise, it’s mostly a neutral tool I use to convey ideas and guide my client.”

Before reading the bestselling book Permission to Speak: How to Change What Power Sounds Like, Starting with You, by Samara Bay, a Los Angeles-based speech coach, I’d have said many, if not all of those things. But now, I’m looking at my voice in an entirely different way. Do I have a therapy voice? Why or why not? How does the tone of my voice convey the empathy, concern, education, or gentle authority I use in the therapy room? And what is my voice saying about me as a person, about my life experience, my values, my identity?

Although Bay works with everyone from Hollywood celebrities to high schoolers on embodying their true, authentic voice, she’s not your run-of-the-mill public speaking coach who’s solely interested in helping people go viral on YouTube, win an election, sell their ideas to a group of wealthy entrepreneurs, or land a coveted role in the next Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Her motivations are deeper and broader than that.

Bay wants us all to challenge traditional ideas about what a powerful voice sounds like. She believes our verbal power doesn’t necessarily come from emulating the deep, serious, masculine voices of many of today’s leaders. Instead, our true power arises from speaking to others from our authentic core about what matters to us. Since therapists are in the business of helping clients access authenticity, healing, and a sense of empowerment, maybe it’s time we reconsidered the importance of our voices and how we use them in the consultation room.

Ryan Howes: You often tell the story of losing your voice at age 24. Why was that so significant for you?

Samara Bay: I was in a graduate acting program, talking all day as one might expect, and over many months, it became too painful to speak. I didn’t know why. I wasn’t sick. I didn’t have any other symptoms. My voice was just gone. I’d try to push through in the mornings by communicating minimally with people, but by evening, the pain of speaking would force me into silence.

Finally, a doctor diagnosed me with vocal nodules, which are small blisters on the vocal cords. I had to go on vocal rest for a few months and seek out a speech pathologist to help me relearn how to talk. It turns out I’d picked up a habit of speaking below my body’s “optimum pitch.” This led me to consider—why? Permission to Speak came out of that inquiry. The answer took years to unpack, but the gist of it is that we all get messages from our culture about how we’re “supposed” to sound if we want to be taken seriously. One message is, “Talk low if you want to be powerful.”

RH: Some people may not feel like they have the freedom to even have a voice.

Bay: Precisely. I talk about a man who overheard me telling a cashier that I was working on a book called Permission to Speak, and he said, “Permission to speak? That’s not something I’ve ever asked for.” He had enough privilege that he never needed permission. But even that guy—who clearly isn’t approaching speaking the same way most women, people of color, somebody queer or with an immigrant story might—probably still has some drama around his voice. There’s an awareness in our bones for many of us that we don’t “talk right.” Many of us feel uncomfortable and insecure about showing up and being seen when we talk. Every human can relate to this on some level.

RH: So you’re saying I might believe I need to sound similar to powerful people around me if I want to be heard, right?

Bay: Yes, but those standards are invisible. We need to make them visible, so we can look at them. What are those standards? Where do they come from? How many thousands of years old are they? Who says that if you want to get taken seriously, you must speak in a low-pitched, unemotional voice, avoid singsong intonations, and come across as firm and confident? Maybe that’s bullshit.

If you google “How do I sound more authoritative?” you’ll find stuff like, slow down, avoid smiling, lower your voice. It’s like, ugh! This is why many of us, including men who fear that they don’t come across as alpha enough, are afraid they’re doing it wrong. The definition we have for good public speaking is too narrow. I offer many examples of people who speak differently and get taken seriously. There’s a growing body of evidence that the sound of power is changing. We need to know this so we can free ourselves from old, constraining standards.

RH: Is there any example that comes to mind?

Bay: Jane Goodall is one. I grew up in a science-focused household, and when I saw her in an old TED Talk, I was really struck by her voice and speaking style. She wasn’t presenting as a scientist with a detached, clinical demeanor—qualities often associated with credibility. I thought, There’s something brave, mischievous, delightful, and instructive about how she’s speaking. It felt like a deliberate choice. This choice is a way we can spend the currency of our power and privilege once we have it. She’s Jane Goodall, she’s on the TED stage, sure, but she’s also choosing to speak in her own voice.

What power or privilege do each of us have in our own lives right now to ask, “Am I allowed to show up more emotionally connected, with more softness, more mischievousness?” For some people, the answer will feel like, “No, my institution is too clinical,” or “No, I’m too low on the ladder,” or “No, I literally don’t feel safe showing up as me.”

Our voices reflect the life we’ve lived and whatever has influenced us. Those influences include where we grew up and how our parents sounded, but also whatever criticisms we absorbed. We sound like the choices we’ve made, and the ones made for us. Getting curious about our voice is the first step. What speech habits did you pick up to get by that helped you hide or maybe sound intimidating? Linguists will say, every vocal habit we’ve picked up, we’ve picked up for a reason. It worked at some point. So in exploring our answers, let’s love on the ways that we’ve been resilient, rather than shame ourselves for the habits we picked up that don’t serve us anymore.

RH: Therapists often talk about how shame impacts a client’s tone of voice, making it sound like they’re trying to hide while speaking. Your message seems to be about trying to bust some of that shame.

Bay: It is. That’s literally the whole thing. We can talk about voices all day long, but I don’t actually care about the sound coming out of your mouth, I care about your relationship to it.

You might wonder, How do I come across in a room? How am I perceived? Do I feel like I deserve to be in that room? If I tell myself, “I’m going to talk wrong,” my relationship to my voice will be evident in things like how often I say um and uh, lose my words, come across as inarticulate, hold my breath, sound too high-pitched, or too aggressive. Too this, too that. We know from the nervous system that the human body can either connect or protect. It can’t really do both at the same time. So how do we move out of protection mode and into connection mode when we talk about what matters to us in front of a lot of people? Or even in front of one client?

RH: When I hear my own recorded voice, I wonder, Am really that nasally?!

Bay: Almost everyone has to face the anatomical reality that they sound different to themselves on the inside than they do on the outside. What’s important is that we then ask, “Okay, yes, I sound different, but is the story of me that’s coming across to people different than I think it is?” Here’s where we tend to tell ourselves, “God, I sound stupid.” We foist cultural standards we’ve absorbed from other people—otherwise known as biases—onto ourselves. We have voice biases like “I prefer a low-pitched, masculine, standard American voice.” If that’s our bias, we conclude, “I don’t sound right,” and dismiss ourselves before anyone else can.

It helps to question our biases. Are they true? Are we trying to sound like someone else? It can be helpful to collect for ourselves a list of people we notice, like Jane Goodall, who make us think, Oh, I like how she shows up. They offer us a new narrative. It’s not, Okay, well, now I want to show up like Jane. It’s Oh, there’s a new possibility here, a new way to be in public, to pitch my idea, to be more human, to focus on connecting and what I care about. This is what I call caring out loud, rather than hiding the fact that we care, or pretending we care when we actually don’t.

Caring out loud inspires a sense of trustworthiness in your listener or your audience. Are you showing your humanity? The thing that’s so cool about our voices is that they simply reveal how willing we are to show up as a person. Or they reveal that we’re not willing to show up.

RH: In the therapy world, people sometimes develop a “therapist voice” in graduate school as they’re learning the craft because they think, understandably, I need to talk how my supervisor talks. We talk about this voice in a bit of a derisive way because it can come across as insincere. “Ooh, mmm, ahh. Tell me more about that.” It’s not just the words, it’s also the intonation.

Bay: Almost every industry has a vocal norm. We know how pilots are supposed to talk to us when the plane hits turbulence. We know how a newscaster is supposed to vocally signal, “I’m a professional in the news world.” Do those standards serve our culture at large in terms of the diversity of background and expression we hope for? I don’t think so, but it’s hard to change industry standards. A useful approach in your profession might be to ask, Is the norm helping? Does it feel good? Do I have the leeway to explore other ways of showing up?

Humans are beautifully complicated. Sometimes, a “therapist voice” might help the therapist have a boundary to avoid connecting with their client like a friend. That’s valuable. But that’s protection, not connection. That’s signaling, “I care about you, but in my role as a therapist we don’t have the kind of relationship where you share your shit and then I share mine.” So you’ve set up a guardrail: “I’m going to talk to you like I’m not quite a person.”

The juicy question is, “When does that not work?”

RH: As a therapist, if you’re working with a client who has experienced marginalization, what steps do you take to help them speak with power in their own way?

Bay: I think it’s irresponsible as a coach to say, “Talk this way. This is the standard. If you want to get taken seriously, you must do this,” but I think it’s equally irresponsible to say, “Just be yourself. You’ve got this. Bye.” We need to help clients ask questions like, “In what ways have I negotiated myself away?” “What aspect of myself could I bring back?” “What if I started to tell people stories or joke more or spend less time worrying about my accent?” “What if I started to bring the version of me that shows up around my favorite people into this other space?”

When we’re exploring how we talk about things that are dear to our hearts we have an almost spiritual opportunity to show up for ourselves and for our ideas. That’s when this conversation is so vital, especially with people who’ve been marginalized.

If they’re going to talk in front of people on this day and at this time, the pressure in on. We can help them recalibrate toward what feels good in their body. What would it feel like if they honored their idea, the people they’re talking to, and the people they’re presenting their idea on behalf of? When the focus is on these kinds of things, it makes the question of, “How do I sound” much less distracting. Ultimately, your outward focus when you speak can help you talk in a way that’s more human, that sounds more like you in front of your favorite people. It’s a more love-based approach to public speaking.

RH: Focusing on the message and on the people you’re talking to sounds like it would reduce self-consciousness.

Bay: The final chapter of my book is on how to make it about your audience, because shifting your focus to what really matters (and away from the “should” of how to sound) works wonders. It’ll accomplish much more than working on your pitch or avoiding ums. It gets at the heart of what speaking is all about, which is connection.

Samara Bay joined us for a Networker Live interview. Watch here.

Ryan Howes

Ryan Howes, Ph.D., ABPP is a Pasadena, California-based psychologist, musician, and author of the “Mental Health Journal for Men.” Learn more at ryanhowes.net.