Here’s an eternal truth about human interaction: Inevitably there will be a misunderstanding or an argument. We can try to avoid it, but it’s futile.
“There’s no way to not communicate in a conversation. Anything you do will be interpreted in some way,” says Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of That’s Not What I Meant!
And the culprit is often tone of voice — as in the thing we need to watch, mind, or change.
Tone says a lot. We can sound warm or empathetic, and our bodies can show the same thing. Rarely in those cases do people say, “Please stop.” It’s when we talk too quickly or emphasize the wrong word, or when a sentence is coupled with crossed arms and staring at the ground, that problems start.
The tricky thing is that it’s hard to guess what will land wrong since a lot of factors are involved. There are regional and cultural sayings. Some words have personal meanings. We get tired and preoccupied. Some use humor to get out serious feelings. And as we’re talking, the other person is trying to infer through their own filters.
“The remarkable thing is we’re understood at all,” notes Nicholas Epley, professor of behavioral science at University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
But here’s the other thing about tone. It can be something of a window. Sometimes when we come off as angry or dismissive, it’s because we’re angry or dismissive.
“Tone is really a reflection of the emotion that the words themselves don’t necessarily convey,” says Lesli Doares, licensed marriage and family therapist and author of Hero Husband: Building a Super Marriage with Truth, Confidence and Authentic Leadership.
But speech patterns aren’t permanently set and “Well, that’s how I am” isn’t an excuse. We can adjust our tone, and we might want to since communicating with our spouse, friends, family, coworkers, neighbors isn’t going away.
So how do you work on the tone of your voice? Some of the work is technical, some of it is being more mindful, and some is pre-emptive. Here’s what to know.
1. Play With Your Voice
You can change your tone by making it more dynamic. Tom Smith, affiliated professor of voice and articulation at Emerson College, recommends four ways:
- Stress, where you put the emphasis on words or syllables.
- Slide, where you change pitch within a word. Think how a trombone sounds.
- Pace, where you play with your tempo.
- Pause, where your silence allows the listener to reflect on what was said and contemplate what might come next.
No one change is better than another. They’re tools to experiment with, make you less predictable, and less likely to be tuned out. “It captures attention. People want to listen to you,” Smith says.
2. Pay Attention
Since each person has different temperaments and definitions for what makes “good conversation”, there’s always a question of how something will be taken. As Tannen asks, “How long can a pause be before it’s a received as a silence?”
There’s no hard answer and you can’t constantly watch what you say. It’s like walking, she says. Think about too much and you’ll trip, but that doesn’t mean you can’t pay attention. When you sense that something is a little off, use that as a cue to listen to yourself and consider what you just said, taking nothing as gospel. “It helps to step back and ask oneself how what we said might have come across,” she says.
3. But Really, Pause
It’s not just about creating emphasis. Sometimes it’s good to not talk immediately, which isn’t the standard approach. “Human beings are not particularly patient,” Doares says. And we’re repeatedly told be authentic, which somehow gets interpreted as having no filter. But take a beat and answer, “What do I want to say?” and “How do I want to be in the moment?”
“If my goal is to piss someone of, I can do that handily,” she says. “But is that my goal or it my goal to accomplish something else?”
And when you have that clarity, your tone and body get in sync. It’s like when we’re happy. We don’t usually have to remind ourselves to smile.
4. Be Forgiving
Sometimes the issue is that whatever you said was vague or didn’t make total sense. The problem is that we’re not good at recognizing ambiguity because we understood what we said. But before being dismissive or snapping back, give your partner or whomever you’re speaking with the benefit of the doubt, which is one of those things that’s easier done from a distance than in the moment, Epley says.
It goes back to remembering that people have good and bad days. And then realizing that even if the other person is misconstruing, they were our words, which possibly could have been clearer or more thoughtful. “Some of it is on you,” he adds.
You then make repairs by saying, “That didn’t come out right,” or “Can I try that again?” Just the acknowledgement is appreciated, but when you accept responsibility, it’s easier for the other person to do the same and future interactions benefit. “Reciprocity is a really powerful feature of social life,” Epley says.
5. Talk with Your Partner Every Day
That is, really talk for a solid chunk of time. As in 20-30 minutes. This gets past the information sharing that marks most parental interactions and gets into actual sharing. And when it’s done regularly, we notice more, get heard, and see each other more positively, requiring less need to simmer and take a less-than-loving tone. On the surface, finding that time might seem impossible, but Doares says that it exists, and it’s a worthy investment, akin to your bank account.
If you have $100,000, a $100 fee is annoying but not threatening. “But if you only have $500,” she says, “that fee is a problem.”