Watch your tone if you want to be heard

Posted1/19/2013 11:12 AM

The mother in front of me leaned down to her daughter and whispered in her ear.


The girl looked a bit chagrined, then muttered in return, "Sorry, Mom."

Later I had a chance to ask the parent in question about this interchange. I was curious as to the meaning of the acronym "T-O-V."

"Tone of voice," she said. "It's a shorthand we developed. When one of the kids sounds disrespectful, I just say 'T-O-V' and they know exactly what I mean. Usually they don't even know they did it, but it sure gets on my nerves."

I suspect that's true for all parents. Whether it's the whining "I can't" of a 2-year-old, the dismissive "I know" of a 7-year-old, or the irritated "What!?!" of a 17-year-old, we all can identify those times when our children's words may be acceptable in and of themselves, but their tone of voice says something totally different.

Of course, this isn't true just for kids. Think about your last argument with a friend, co-worker or spouse. How much of the communicating was done not through the words that were used but the tone of voice used in saying them? This is especially true when it comes to emotions.

Take, for instance, the word "thanks." Just by altering our tone of voice we can express gratitude, surprise, irritation, impatience or rejection. And we can easily deny the underlying emotional content of our words: "What do you mean? I said 'thanks!'"

Actually, I think the older we get the better we get at using T-O-V. We adults are able to make our words say all kinds of things they might not otherwise say. And our arguments frequently degenerate into angry exchanges about what was really meant vs. what was actually said, all based on our interpretations of each other's tone of voice.

Tone of voice may help us communicate, but it doesn't help us communicate all that constructively. It is a good idea, then, to develop other ways of letting people know what we feel, think, want and so on.

Probably the best way to do that is to simply say what is in our hearts or on our minds. Putting our emotions and thoughts into words can be risky, and there are good ways and bad ways to do it.

Usually putting a name to our feelings ("I feel angry" or "I'm scared" or whatever) and expressing our ideas tentatively ("It seems to me" or "this is just my opinion") are a good start. And it is always important to take responsibility for our own emotions (avoid "you make me feel") and respect other peoples' ideas (not "there's one way -- my way").

Learning to communicate clearly, and especially avoiding the temptation to use our tone of voice to say indirectly what we are afraid to say directly, is not easy. If we don't at least try, however, our emotions in particular will almost always leak out. Then we are not only dealing with whatever issue we are struggling to talk about, but with each others' confusion as to what is really being said.

Sometimes it doesn't hurt to have a little coaching when it comes to tone of voice and other communication skills. Most marriage and family therapists are trained to help people take a look at and improve how they communicate. Some even offer classes on communicating more effectively. Check out the resources in your area.

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