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READING PEOPLE: Insights & Tools for Knowing What Your Students Are Thinking

Updated: Oct 6, 2022

For an independent voice pro, relationships are a big deal.

They’re the foundation of what we do. If we aren’t confident and adept at managing the relationships with our clients - relationships that can sometimes last for years - then we aren’t teaching well. Relationships are literally enmeshed with the pedagogy we work so hard on. If the interpersonal thing ain’t happenin’, then the learning isn’t happening as well as it could.

We need to have an awareness of our clients' thoughts and feelings both because they’re not always forthcoming about these things, and because sometimes they simply don't know what they are.

Those thoughts and feelings are literally a part of their voice! The functioning of the voice is influenced by the neurochemical messages the brain is receiving, and the hormonal messages the tissue of the vocal folds is receiving. So a student can be generating thoughts that are calling up feelings that are affecting the outcome of the lesson or coaching session. That’s a big deal!



We all know that any given lesson can be a building block to a greater whole, a turning point in the student's progress, or a shift in their self-perception. You’ve probably had one or more of those yourself. Our ability to read our students is not only important to our livelihood, it can be important to our student’s entire life.

Thinking about this made me think of Tessa West.

Tessa West is a psychology professor. She researches interpersonal accuracy, in other words, how well we read each other. She’s also the author of the book Jerks at Work, has written a number of articles, and has been on some podcasts. So I refreshed my personal Tessa West file in order to share some insights.

Some elements of her interpersonal accuracy research jumped out at me as being important to voice coaches and teachers:

  • Power dynamics

  • Overestimating our ability to read people

  • Egocentric bias

Power Dynamics

Power dynamics are a really big deal for us. As we engage in the intimate, one-on-one interactions required by our work, we don’t feel we’re exercising power over our clients. We probably feel that we’re nurturing, informing, and guiding them. But they very likely feel a power dynamic.

If they’re children or teens, they see you (and all their teachers) as being in a position of power. Let’s face it, if at any time you chose to use your position of Voice Authority to be harshly critical or unkind, it would be devastating to that child or teen.

Your adult clients are already good at a number of things, and have chosen to venture into this area about which they know very little. They’re making themselves vulnerable. You are in the power position.

This matters because your student, as the low-power person in the relationship, is going to tend to mask what they’re thinking and feeling. Further, they’re going to be more actively trying to read you.

In the teacher-student relationship, your student’s antennae are up. You have to make the decision, over and over again, in every single lesson, to be aware of this dynamic. How to make the best use of that will be clearer as we look at the next two things.

We overestimate our ability to read people

I don't have to say much more about this fact, except to say it’s something to keep in mind.

When you think you’ve accurately read someone’s intentions, feelings, or thoughts, and without checking with them, concluded that you know what those intentions, feelings, or thoughts are…you’re probably wrong. Even the popular “body language” vocabulary cannot be trusted.

People are very idiosyncratic. If I cross my arms while we’re talking, I may feel defensive, or maybe I’m cold. I may feel self-conscious about my appearance, or it may mean my chair doesn’t have arms and I don’t know where to put my hands. You just can’t know without asking, so try not to read people.

Egocentric Bias

This is the fancy, clinical name for something we all do. We anchor what we imagine others are thinking or feeling based on our own experiences. This becomes more acute the more ambiguous the situation is. So the more unsure we are, the more we tend to project our own interpretation of the experience.

The common advice to “put yourself in another person's shoes” is great for compassion, but really off the mark for actually understanding what someone is thinking or feeling.

Let’s bring this into the studio.

Let’s say you learned a really cool exercise to address breathy head register (or M2). Breathy M2 Girl comes to her session and you decide to try the exercise with her. It’s the first time you’ve tried this, so you’re a little unsure. Because you feel unsure, you’re likely to project that onto your student and imagine that she’s perceiving you as unsure. That’s your egocentric bias at play.

It’s also egocentric bias that makes you ruminate over why a particular student quit lessons and what you must have done to cause that. Egocentric bias is a big stumbling block; it’s hard to overcome. I think it helps to know that it’s there, however, influencing your perceptions and beliefs.

So how do you read your clients?

Ask them.

If you perceive something about what they’re thinking or feeling, ask them specifically. Say, “I see you shifting your weight on your feet. Can you tell me what that’s about”? This way you've invited them to tell you if they have some physical discomfort, if they’re feeling restless, if they’re feeling the groove of their song, or if they’re anticipating their grandma’s visit.

Tell them.

Clarify your own behavior so they are not filling it in with their egocentric bias. Say, “I wasn't sighing because of you. I’m just a little tired.” Or, “My scowling is about my frustration with my computer, not with you.” Try to be aware of your own behavior and clear about its meaning.

You can be a model for clarifying interpersonal behaviors, and in doing that help both you and your student feel confident in the relationship.

Meredith Colby, October 2022


Meredith Colby is an expert on singing in popular styles.

She's an author and the creator of Neuro-Vocal for Popular Styles, a way to teach healthy technique for popular styles based on brain science. Meredith teaches privately online to professional & adult singers, and voice teachers & coaches from all over the world.

You can get information and book individual sessions or classes from this site.


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This blog post is about #readingpeople and the obstacles to that. It is meant for #voiceteachers and #voicecoaches. It is also meant for #vocalcoaches and #freelance professionals. In #privatevoicelessons it is important that #independentvoice teachers and coaches communicate well. #tessawest is a psychologist at #NYU who studies #interpersonaldynamics and #communication. This article is a reflection on some of her work with an emphasis on #clientrelationships and #positiveclientrelationships in the #teachingstudio, #musicstudio, and #voicestudio.


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