Watch your tone

Working with couples over the years, I know that the issue of tone is touchy for so many.  One couple would get into big, knock-down-drag-out fights over the smallest issues because of tone.  Ashley would be irritated about something and respond to her husband with a nasty tone.  He took it personally and the fight would ensue.

Another couple, with both of them being very sensitive, struggles over tone more than anything else.  Helen makes a comment and Bryan takes her tone to be critical, which hurts his feelings.  When he says something, he is just sharing and she takes his tone as a complaint, which hurts her feelings.  They deteriorate from there.

We’re so aware of our sensitivity to tone that we’ve invented emoticons to convey tone in emails and text messages.  The tone makes or breaks the communication.  If we put effort into being clear on tone in written communication, why don’t we do the same in verbal exchanges?  It’s because tone is so hard to control.  Something that sounds fine in your head may come out differently, spinning a whole new meaning because of your tone.  And many are simply not aware of their own tone, often because their tone may be a reflection of something other than the topic-at-hand.

I’ve been very deliberately working on my ability to ignore tone.  I want to respond to the words instead.  My teenage son often has an agitated tone to what he says.  I usually don’t take issue with the words he uses, but hear an inappropriate, disrespectful, or irritable tone.  I ask him to repeat himself, using a nicer tone.  Sometimes it takes him several tries, but he’s learning how to control and choose his tone.

Listen to yourself as you speak.  If your tone didn’t match what you intended to convey, then call a do-over and try again.  Likewise, if you don’t appreciate someone else’s tone, ask them calmly to repeat that, reminding them that tone makes the message carry a different meaning.  Often, the tone simply wasn’t accurate.  Try to just respond to the words.  So if the words are kind but the tone isn’t, address the words only and see what happens.

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