Communication: How’s Your Tone?

As educators, interactions are a central element of our work. How we communicate determines the quality of our interactions and the climate in early childhood settings. At its best, communication engages our intellect, appeals to our emotions, stimulates our senses, and sometimes, embraces our spirits. Communication is about how we transmit messages and how they are received. Some communications we have create resonance and others, dissonance. Some leave us energized, some leave us depleted. Communication is something we do reflexively -- like breathing. We talk to or with our colleagues, spouses, children and friends without giving much thought to how we're doing it. It might seem easy, but interacting effectively is achieved by developing trust, knowing what your goals are, and, most important, by how we communicate — by our tone. 

I think a lot about this important aspect of communication—how we deliver our messages and notice that it is central to how we are heard. For most of us, we are often unaware of our tone, of how we sound to others.  For example, I’ve realized that when I am nervous, defensive, or disappointed, my tone is sharp. This sharpness of tone comes from feeling vulnerable — sometimes insecure. However, what I’ve been told is that others hear it as aggressive and angry.

Understanding the importance of tone helps. But it doesn’t fix it. Like any habit, mostly we don’t even know it is there. When I’m nervous, defensive, or disappointed, I’m at my least self-aware state and so my tone is most likely to come out automatically without intention. The ripple effects of my tone cause actions and reactions in others. “Oh no – there are those ripples again!” I have to work on tone every day. And doing so, makes a huge difference in how I feel and how effective I am in my personal and professional life.

Delivery might actually be more important than our message. Ask anybody who listens to you. Based on how we say something -- our inflection or emphasis on certain words and our body language and facial expressions—our tone conveys our attitude, whether we send a message of humor, anger, sarcasm, jealousy or sincerity.

Tone is, very simply, the tone of your voice, ranging from cold to warm, from critical to supportive, or from authoritarian to collaborative—from any emotion that stimulates resonance and connection as opposed to dissonance and alienation.

What's critical to understand about tone, is that it's one of the most important components of interpersonal communication. Tone comes across in emails and phone calls just as it comes through in face to face interactions.

We can choose the words and ideas we use to engage someone else, but our message can be completely negated and wiped out by the cold or critical tone in our voice. Tone has an emotional impact on others. Tone can shut someone down, turn off motivation, and close possibilities.

We can make a difference in our interactions by paying attention to how we communicate and specifically how we deliver messages. Here are a few tips that are working for me:

1.    Pause before speaking. I try to give myself at least 10 seconds before I respond, especially if I feel unsettled. Josh Billings has this wonderful quote: The best time to hold your tongue is the time you feel you must say something or bust.  I make an effort to think about the words I use, the expression on my face, and the tone in my voice, trying hard to take out any edge.

2.    Phrase things in a positive manner. I apologize if this idea makes your skin crawl. Listen to the difference in the following: 
•    “This won’t work.”
       versus 
•    “This is interesting. I’m wondering how we can make this work. Let’s talk through the possibilities together.”

A positive approach to delivery requires a strengths-based stance. One way to practice is to use reframing. Ask solution-focused questions such as, What are some ways we can find 15 minutes to talk about this? Instead of, I just don’t have time.
What's reframing? What I just did in the example above.

3. Think about your listener and how he or she will hear you. Perspective taking helps. Different people listen to you differently and need you to allow them to respond in different ways.

My delivery is something I practice all the time and I find it does make a difference in the quality of my interactions. I'm not always successful but I'm trying. I invite you to think about how you sound when you communicate and also how you respond to the tone and delivery style of others.  Let me know what you are thinking! Your insights will help us all get better at tone!