Take Note of Tone of Voice

Much of people’s distress, particularly children’s, arises in response to the tone of voice used by others. Many individuals are not conscious of the tone of voice they use but, nonetheless, conscious or not, they need to own what belongs to them. Contrary to what many people believe, tone of voice arises from an internal emotional place of either solidity or turmoil; when it is the former it communicates love, equality, openness, optimism, genuineness, sincerity, spontaneity, clarity, definitiveness and confidence; when it arises from inner turmoil it can communicate either in an acting-out way, aggression, irritability, tetchiness, dismissiveness, arrogance, control, dominance, hostility, threat, tension or in an acting-in way, fearfulness, pessimism, passivity, sadness, uncertainty and indecisiveness. I used the phrase ‘contrary to what many people believe’ above as it is more commonly believed that it is somebody else that triggers the particular tone of voice used. However, the truth is that what comes from you is about you and it is a clever defensive manoeuvre to blame somebody else for your own responses. However, a defensive reaction never leads to a resolution of the underlying insecurity that gives rise to defensive tone of voice. Whether we like it or not, our tone of voice at all times reveals – is a mirror – of our interiority.

It is an interesting exercise to brainstorm what are the possible tones of voice that we either use or encounter from others. Of course, having identified your own repertoire from the list below it behoves you to detect the inner source of the tones – particularly when they are of a defensive nature. The word tone is an anagram for the word ‘note’ and for our own mature progress and the well-being of others, it is an urgent responsibility for each of us to begin to consciously take note of our tone of voice.

In brainstorming, it is important to distinguish between the physical properties and the emotional intentions of tones of voice. For example, when I say ‘your tone of voice is hard’, I am defining its physical sound but when I say ‘your tone of voice is cross’ I am alluding to its possible emotional intention to convey anger. I say ‘possible’ because it is crucial to check on your assumption and not presume you can read another person’s behaviour. A mature enquiring would be to say ‘am I hearing anger in your voice?’

It is useful then to brainstorm two lists, one conveying what the tone sounds like and the other its possible emotional intention.

A tone of voice may sound light, heavy, squeaky, deep, high-pitched, low-pitched, deep-throated, light-airy, bellowing, whimpering, earthy, sharp, firm, flat, soft, well-modulated, full.

In terms of emotional intention, you may experience a tone of voice as cross, anxious, fearful, sad, depressed, joyful, chirpy, tentative, threatening, insistent, cutting, kind, gentle, tender, confident, indecisive, patronising, manipulative, domineering, rigid, seductive, flirtatious, erotic, mean, serious, ambivalent, vicious, sarcastic, cynical, dismissive.

As we can see, tone of voice is a powerful means of communication both for the person who is communicating and for the person at the receiving end of the non-verbal message. In terms of the speaker, tone of voice offers a powerful window into his or her own interiority. In owning both aspects of voice tone, the speaker is given an opportunity to check the source of the tone and when it is defensive in nature and expressing particular emergency feelings such as anger, sadness, fear, it provides the opportunity to strengthen one’s inner stronghold of self. For example, if you notice your tone of voice is frequently cross, you may discover the intention to convey anger was an attempt to get another person – adult or child – to take responsibility for some unmet need of yours, rather than you yourself take ownership for it. This happened a teacher friend of mine who found that each day he went home from teaching school feeling stressed and tired, was cross with his five year old son with whom his relationship had sadly deteriorated. He realised he was not looking after himself and that it was that neglect of himself he was projecting onto his unsuspecting, baffled and hurt son.

The person who is the target of a person’s tone of voice also has an opportunity to examine his or her present level of maturity. When a person personalises the other person’s tone of voice – for example, ‘that person’s tone of voice’ is not respectful of me – then there is an urgent enmeshment to be resolved. How is it that in the face say of a person’s dismissive tone of voice that you did not stay separate, hold onto your own worthy sense of self and enquire ‘I feel that your tone of voice is being dismissive of yourself!’ Recall that whether it is a non-verbal or verbal communication from another, the message is totally about the person sending the message and says absolutely nothing about you. When you receive it as being about you there is an expediency for you to work on your own relationship with yourself.

Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist and is author of Whose Life Are You Living?