“Don’t use that tone with me!”
“Your performance is good, but there is an issue with your tone.”
“Did you hear that tone in his voice?!”
We communicate tons of information with the tone of our voice. It’s so powerful that if there is incongruence between the tone we use and the words we say, people will believe the tone over the words. Imagine all the ways someone might say, “I’m fine” in a tone that makes it clear they are not, in fact, fine.
A lot of people find their way to me as a coach because they have gotten feedback about their tone being a problem. Let’s look at what that means and how you might choose to adjust it.
I’ll start by saying we are not talking about criticism regarding word choice, general way of being, personality, or expressing yourself and your feelings in a way that is appropriate for the situation. That is known as “tone policing”, and is not what we’re talking about here. That is something to be avoided.
This blog is about a tone of voice that misrepresents you and your intention.
A case study
One client presented with negative feedback from her supervisor (a VP) regarding a “tone issue”. The client (let’s call her Jean) had determined that when she tries to explain something she is questioned about, “something happens” in her tone that leads people to think she is being defensive (which she insists is not true). She further observed that when is she is “internally annoyed,” her tone goes flat.
What was really going on?
My observation of her voice quality was that is was twangy, “edgy”, and placed in the back of her throat. It felt tight, with little resonance. This was partly because she did not use much air when she spoke.
Because of her habit of “holding back” her voice, she also sounded low and monotone in her delivery.
What did we do about it?
Over the course of several sessions we analyzed the idea of vocal tone, what contributes to it, and what can be done to change it while still feeling authentic.
We discussed non-linguistic factors that give the impression of a positive or negative attitude. For example, we generally perceive someone who uses a fair amount of pitch modulation as being enthusiastic, engaged, and overall positive. By comparison, we might perceive a flat, monotone, low and held-back voice quality as disinterest, anger, or boredom.
This can be true even if it is not what the speaker is actually feeling.
We did some technical voice work (using exercises for posture, breath, and increased resonance) to find a warmer, richer vocal quality. This turned out to also eliminate her issues with vocal fatigue (feeling vocally tired after prolonged talking).
Finally, we addressed inflection, or pitch variety. We have all heard monotone speakers drone on in a way that causes us to zone out. The human ear is attracted to change. Without going over the top into something artificial, we worked on using more pitch variety and inflection when speaking.
The final piece of our work involved an overall awareness of managing other people’s (especially her boss’) perceptions. For example, when she faced frustrating events in meetings, Jean paused for a moment and took a breath instead of reflexively defending her position, or questioning a statement. She was then able to deliberately use her new richer, smoother, free tone in her response.
What were the results?
The feedback she got was extraordinary.
Her trainees demonstrated a higher level of engagement in trainings.
She got unsolicited positive feedback about her performance from peers.
Her workday felt more fun and light.
And perhaps most important, her boss noticed the improvement in her “tone”, was thrilled that she took the initiative to seek training, and praised her performance across multiple areas.
For Jean, a combination of insights about herself and the perception of attitude coupled with technical voice work allowed her to find an authentic, comfortable, easy voice that not only felt better to her, but also represented her the way she wanted to be seen.
If you’d like some guidance on modifying your tone without losing your sense of self, schedule a session today!