The Importance of Tone
How we often communicate the opposite of what we intend.
Posted Aug 05, 2010
Several weeks ago, I was editing together some video footage for a home movie and was surprised to discover how irritated, negative, and just plain mean I sounded when talking to my wife. I remember most of the interactions that were filmed but not any of the feelings I was quite clearly projecting. In one segment, my wife was trying out a tripod and having trouble figuring out how to use it correctly. "You're holding it wrong," I snapped sharply. "That's not right at all!"
"It's working for me," she replied, somewhat taken aback.
Watching this was a humbling experience, to say the least. As a Buddhist, I strive to be tolerant, optimistic, and kind and was pained to see how far from exhibiting those qualities I was. Ironically, I'd been wondering why my wife and I seemed not to be enjoying one another's company as much recently. The video gave me the answer. The cause was me.
Watching it taught me three things:
- Whatever the content of the things we say, it's our tone that communicates what we're feeling when we say them. Our tone tells the truth even when our words don't, even when we're unaware of that truth ourselves. And it's our tone to which others respond. We can even say "I love you" in a way that provokes bitterness and then innocently argue we're being unfairly attacked when the person to whom we've said it quite rightly responds to our tone rather than our words. Don't be fooled by this kind of faux denial from others. What you think you hear in another person's tone is almost always present. And if someone accuses you of an attitude or feeling you don't think you have, unless they're particularly thick or have some hidden agenda, what they have to say likely represents something you need to hear.
- We're often unaware of tensions and attitudes brewing underneath the surface. When others respond to us negatively or in ways other than what we want or expect, rather than criticizing or attacking them, we might pause to reflect on how our tone (and therefore our underlying feelings of the moment) may have caused the reaction we received. For me, this is far easier said than done...
- ...because my ability to identify my underlying mood is less honed than I previously thought. I think many of us have difficulty observing our feelings when we're in the middle of feeling them, especially if what we're feeling runs counter to what we want to be feeling or what we think we should be feeling.
One reason I practice Nichiren Buddhism is to identify my own negativity and transform it. And it works—one way or another, bit by bit, epiphanies have come, enabling me gradually to shape myself into the person I want to be. But some relationships provide a more ready proving ground than others for unmasking the parts of us that need to change.
A principle of Nichiren Buddhism teaches the oneness of life and its environment, which from one perspective means all our relationships represent mirrors. If we don't like what we see—what's coming at us from another person, it often represents what's coming at them from us, delivered by our tone. In my experience, those to whom we feel closest and love the most generally represent our best opportunities to see ourselves as we really are (and therefore also the people at whom we're most likely to get angry).
I've had the opportunity to watch myself on video before as a medical student when I was first learning to obtain medical histories from standardized patients, and it taught me a lot about how I appeared to patients. It made me a better doctor. Catching myself on video interacting with my wife and friends, however, has provided me the unexpected opportunity to make me a better human being.
It turns out that I've been frustrated with a particular situation I've been feeling somewhat powerless to affect and watching the video showed me that I've been taking out that frustration on those closest to me. So I've decided to apologize to them by making a determination to stop expressing my frustration inappropriately and become more aware of the tone I use when I speak.
If you haven't ever watched yourself interact with others in your daily life on video when you weren't focused on being filmed or even aware of it, I highly recommend it. It might be a painful experience as mine was, but if you're willing to be honest with yourself and recognize the truth of what you see—and more importantly the truth of what you hear—you can use it as a springboard for outstanding personal growth.
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