Try a Softer Tone

Try a Softer Tone

How do you talk to people?

The Practice:
Try a softer tone.

Why?

Linguists like Deborah Tannen have pointed out that most communications have three elements:

  • Explicit content – “There is no milk in the refrigerator.”
  • Emotional subtext – Could be irritation, blame, accusation
  • Implicit statement about the nature of the relationship – Could be one person gets to criticize and boss around someone else

Many studies have found that the second and third elements – which I define in general as tone – usually have the greatest impact on how an interaction turns out. Since a relationship is built from interactions, the accumulating weight of the tone you use has big effects.

In particular, because of the “negativity bias” of the brain – which is like Velcro for uncomfortable experiences but Teflon for pleasant ones – a repeatedly critical, snarky, disappointed, worried, or reproachful tone can really rock a relationship; for example, John and Julie Gottman’s work has shown that it typically takes several positive interactions to make up for a single negative one.

How?

Be mindful of tone – Be on the lookout for needlessly negative tone: your own and others. And when it’s there – including in mild ways like an eye roll, exasperation, or subtle put-down – notice the results. Also track the results of neutral or positive tone.

Consider your true purposes – In an interaction, ask yourself if you’re there to be right, show the other person how he or she is wrong, vent, or work some covert agenda; these underlying priorities will lead to problematic tone. Instead, try to ground yourself in more positive purposes, such as find out what really happened in a situation, speaking from your heart, being empathic, strengthening the relationship, or solving a practical problem.

Lay a good foundation – First try to establish a frame of relatedness and goodwill, and that you are not trying to boss the other person around. You do not need the cooperation of the other person to unilaterally center yourself, clarify in your mind what it is you want to say, open your heart, find good wishes, and take a little time to get into relationship before launching into your topic.

Be careful about anger – I think there is a place for anger – it alerts you to wrongs and energizes you to deal with them – and for letting others know you’re feeling annoyed or just plain mad. But how you express your anger can have a lot of unwanted impacts. Humans evolved to be very reactive to tones of anger because they carry signals of threat; just notice how the background hubbub in a restaurant gets quiet when an angry voice is heard.

So slow down, do a few l-o-n-g exhalations to calm your body, put the situation in perspective, and try to feel down to the gentler and more vulnerable feelings beneath anger. Then choose your words carefully, and name what you’re feeling beneath the anger without blaming the other person (e.g., “When there is no milk in the refrigerator, I feel like you are not thinking about the effect on me of taking the last of the milk”). Remember that dumping your anger on others – including via little barbs – harms you, too, and sometimes more than them. As a proverb says, getting angry with others is like throwing hot coals with bare hands: both people get burned.

Gentle your body – Relax your eyes, throat, and heart. This will naturally soften your tone.

Don’t use inflammatory language – Exaggerations, accusations, fault-finding, words like “never” or “always,” insults, swearing, alarming threats, pathologizing (e.g., “you’ve got a personality disorder”), and cheap shots (e.g., “you’re just like your father”) are like gasoline on those hot coals. Instead, use words that are accurate and not provocative. Imagine that you are being video-taped and people you care about will be watching it later; don’t say anything you’ll regret later.

Say what needs to be said – A reasonable and civil tone actually promotes honesty and assertiveness because then you don’t need to fight side battles or back-track to clean up a mess. But if a softer tone replaces sticking up for yourself, that’s not good for anyone. So keep communicating.

*     *     *

May your good interactions build great relationships!



Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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