Tone of Voice and Communication in Relationships

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Tone of Voice and Communication


Last week, when I was at dinner with my family, I suddenly felt someone wasn't kind to me at the dinner table. I began to feel defensive and upset. Although it wasn't anything specific this person said to me, it was the conversation's tone that had me feeling so bad.


When we got home, I realized I needed to talk with my family member about it, but I couldn't explain it, so I did some research. It turns out, communication between the speaker and sender has three elements.

  • Explicit content – what you say: " Pass the butter."
  • Emotional subtext – I'm unhappy at you, angry or frustrated about something
  • Implicit statement about the relationship between the two speakers – One person feels the right to criticize and dominate the other ( as in a power differential). 

The emotional subtext and the implicit statement Rick Hanson calls tone impact how the conversation will most.


Millions of small interactions make up a relationship, and these interactions are composed even further of these micro components. 

Think about how much of what is happening between two people is unspoken and unconscious! Tone of voice and communication play a huge role in a relationship. 


So much of communication is subtle, we don't even know ourselves what we are conveying to the other person, and they may be picking up on things we feel but are unaware of. In these exchanges, we can have feelings, and we don't know why. This is why something like gaslighting can occur. Mindfulness of your emotions, bodily state, and true intentions are essential, as is a willingness to be vulnerable and authentic in your relationships.

Tone of Voice and Communication: Bonding


Tone of voice is SO crucial to connection and bonding in humans that there is a hormone that we secrete, oxytocin, that is specifically associated with understanding it. Those who have autism seem to have a deficit of it and cannot accurately decipher tone cues. A soothing and calming tone helps with bonding and connection. A mother will use it to reassure a baby that she is there to keep it safe and regulate it during crucial attachment stages.


We have this powerful ability to improve our communication by being aware of our tone of voice when we speak to the people we love.



Tone of Voice and Communication Tips


Keep in mind that if you have thoughts, feelings, and issues between you and your loved ones that are unresolved or lingering, they will creep into your tone and conversations. You can address the problems or consciously protect your interactions from them until you are ready to address them by being aware of whatever emotions are attached to them—for example, anger. When these issues are going on, be extra careful with your tone. Guard your relationships, so they are not negatively impacted. 


Make space for your interactions in your day. Before you enter your conversations and interactions with loved ones, get into the proper headspace. Several years ago, I read a story of a man who would sit in his car each day before he would enter his home after work, visually shedding his workday. He would generate images of his family and the love he felt for them to be present and greet them with gratitude and appreciation. I made this a practice afterward because I loved this idea so much.


Try to stay clear of criticism or judgment in your conversational exchanges. These aren't typically patterns that lead to good communication. Tones attached to these states are toxic and induce shame. They come from your inner critic. Do your work, practice self-compassion regularly. Watch your relationships improve.


Practice good listening skills. What is your agenda in the interaction? Is it to listen to the other person, have an exchange of ideas? Convince them that you are right? Do you notice patterns of predatory listening in yourself or them?


Practice being mindful of others' responses and feelings in your interactions with loved ones ( as well as your own). People are sensitive; if you check into the interactions and be present with your loved ones, you can track what is happening. A soothing, calming tone of voice can be the difference between helping your loved one become emotionally regulated, feel loved and connected, or feel lost and alone, and you have the power to do all that by focusing on this skill. Amazingly, you will also become regulated as you do this. 

References for Tone of Voice and Communication


Rick Hanson's Page

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