When we think about artificial intelligence and human speech we typically think of personal assistants like Siri and Alexa. That technology is still in its infancy. What if the real potential with AI is not to make computers or apps sound more human, but instead, to help humans be more humane and empathetic?
An MIT spin-off company called Cogito has developed software that evaluates the subtle give-and-take of conversation—focusing not on what is said, but how it is said. The technology monitors subtleties of speech like tone, energy, vocal strain, and tempo. To date, it has been used primarily in call centers, where early case studies show it has reduced call times and increased customer satisfaction and engagement.
Cogito is one of 20 startups co-founded by the director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab, Alex Pentland, who has long been fascinated with nonverbal communication. Other similar technology is likely to follow. Smart business leaders will see such advances as one of many tools and technologies to increase emotional intelligence and improve communication skills in the workplace.
One valuable lesson provided by Cogito’s software is how delicate of a matter it is to build true empathetic rapport with another person. “Conversations are like a dance. You can be in sync or out of sync” according to CEO and co-founder Joshua Feast.
Cogito’s product does not get bogged down in the details of what is said, nor provide complicated feedback to the call center operator. Either of those approaches would produce cognitive overload and be counterproductive. Feedback might consist of a color-coded meter on a screen showing that the customer is engaged or not. A coffee cup will be displayed if the speaker’s energy level lags.
The ultimate objective is to provide simple feedback that sharpens our intuition and empathetic skills. Feast says it is all about being “more emotionally intelligent in real time.”
The simple and straightforward approach of Cogito’s software is remarkably similar to the kind of feedback I encourage clients to cultivate in themselves. While most of us may not have access to technology analyzing our daily conversations with employees and colleagues, we can train ourselves to be aware of those same subtle details.
In the same way a skilled poker player learns to read the tells of an opposing player—the body language and vocal inflections that might betray a good or a bad hand—we can learn to understand our own tells. Do you drum your fingers on the table or bounce your knee when you are impatient? Does your vocal inflection rise when you are feeling tense? Are you slouched over in your seat when you feel your energy leached?
I work with clients to develop the habit of regular self-check-ins throughout the day. It is a matter of pausing to take our emotional, mental, and physical temperature at a given moment. The more we do so, the more we become aware of our patterns of response to certain situations. That self-awareness allows us to monitor and regulate our emotional state accordingly.
Better communication enhances engagement
Any tool or training that allows your employees to communicate more effectively with one another, and with customers or clients, improves engagement on multiple levels.
The challenges faced by call center operators are no different from those encountered by any customer-facing employees at your company. The more aware they are of the subtle give-and-take of conversational dynamics, the more likely they can remain present and engaged. When your employees are present and engaged, they are more helpful in producing a favorable outcome for your customers or clients. Moreover, as they experience their ability to constructively handle difficult encounters, job satisfaction and performance increase. It is a win-for-all situation.
In my corporate consulting practice, I view communication, engagement, and wellness as interrelated and mutually reinforcing.
Avoiding mixed messages
In the same way, a conversation with another person is a dance that can fall in or out of sync, our nonverbal cues can either be aligned with our words or undercut them. MIT’s Pentland calls these cues “honest signals” that often carry more power than the words themselves.
For example, if you are trying to reassure your team that certain difficult decisions will make the company stronger in the long run, you will undermine your case if your vocal strain reveals anxiety. Similarly, getting them on board for ambitious sales goals will go over far more convincingly if the energy of your words is consistent with your message.
We can learn to put our honest signals to work on our behalf with practice. Doing so starts with paying attention to the full range of ways with which we communicate, and to the effect we have on others through what we say and how we say it.
The challenge of a high-stakes business meeting or presentation may not seem like the most appropriate time to get in touch with our emotions. The lesson of Cogito’s software is that our emotional state will find its way into our spoken words whether we like it or not. We need to use the tools we have at our disposal to monitor, adjust, and align our communication. When the how and the what of our message are on the same page, it will have the power and reach we intend.
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Published on Forbes on Oct. 23, 2018