The Importance Of Tone

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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:

  1. 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 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.
  2. 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…
  3. …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 myself 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.

Next WeekThe Importance Of Having The Right Gear

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  • Thank you, Alex, once again for your vulnerability and the lessons you learn and share. You are a mensch.

  • Thank you for a great example on how to deal with things about ourselves that we discover and find less than flattering. This is such an important part of growth—to be able to have some objectivity when looking at our faults and move on by changing what we don’t want to do anymore, to ourselves or others. We are all in the same boat ultimately—trying to be better people and kinder to ourselves and those around us. The part about “kinder to ourselves” comes first, as it helps lessen the reaction of the ego to what it perceives as criticism. Thanks for sharing the less flattering parts of your process—we can all relate to that.

  • Excellent point, and the flip side should be considered, too: expressing feelings like anger or disappointment with a discordantly cheery voice. The tone belies the feeling, and should be in accordance with what is being said.

    If frustrated, one should not hide that behind happy words; one should express the frustration. I think perhaps women, especially, use tone to imply a hidden feeling, hoping their conversant will “pick up” on it. Instead, people pick up on the lack of harmony between word and tone, and just feel irritated.

  • This is so true. I remember working on the phone at the Department of Motor Vehicles and my coworker said, “Why do I get all the mean customers?” And her tone was not good. I didn’t tell her, but I knew that was the problem. I just read a page in a spiritual book I have that said our relationships are a mirror of what is going on with us and that is true to a point but very true if we try to use better tone. Thanks for this great post. I am going to tone my tone.

  • Thank you so much for this post and the many other posts you have made which help me see and understand ways to be a better person.

    I have noticed this tendency in myself to use the wrong tone especially with those that I love most. I keep reminding myself that although the old saying “you only hurt the one’s you love” is kind of funny, it’s not a guide on how to behave.

    I fear that truly achieving an appropriate tone will be quite a challenge for me. Sometimes I hear the tone and sometimes I don’t. Like you, I see the effect on my relationship with my husband. When my tone is a reflection of my frustration with him, I am at a loss to figure out how to correct my tone and how to regain the sometimes lost connection with him. We have been married a long time and both of us have issues that are reflected in our tone of voice. Well, as they say, being aware of an area of your life that needs improvement is the first step.

    vjkramer: It surely is the first step.


  • I found something similar with facial expressions. I was repeatedly surprised by hostile reactions when I most needed sympathy. I thought my face looked sad, but on one occasion I was shocked when I caught sight of myself in a mirror: I looked like I was scowling! I spent a while trying out different expressions to find one that seemed more suitable to convey the sadness I actually felt. Now I’m aware of this as a potential problem, it helps a lot. I never thought about my tone of voice though…

  • Thank you for having the courage to admit this. I, too, struggle with blaming others for how they treat me, when, it’s entirely possible it was my tone or delivery that provoked. I’ve been reading a book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. Herein is a solid path to learning skills for communicating feelings and needs with compassion.

    PS—I’ve also been reading your blog posts for sometime now and really enjoy the content. The stories are simple and helpful and easy to share with others.

    Beverly: Thanks. I’m glad you’re enjoying the posts.


  • Exactly what I needed to hear today, no pun intended. Thanks for sharing with such gracious authenticity.

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mike Gamble, AgingFamilies. AgingFamilies said: The Importance Of Tone: via @addthis […]

  • This is to true. The best way to know your tone and is to listen to yourself interact with people on a taped video.

    I first heard this from my freshman engineering professor.

    He told a group of us how he was transformed after watching a taped lecture. When he was a new professor he talked to students in a negative way, especially when they were not as smart as he was. He looked down on them, he showed off about how much he knew but forgot to show them how to learn or to educate—e-ducere (latin) meaning “to lead out.”

    After he watched his first taped lecture and saw how he was rambling through without regard of his students, he changed the way he approached teaching. Today, he is on of the best professors I know. He even went further echoing what you suggested, get someone tape you without you knowing and watch it, preferably alone.

  • As I struggle to improve myself as a human being, it has been very helpful to me to imagine that “someone” is watching everything I do and listening to everything I say, which gently pushes me into putting my best self forward always (which is the way I want to be all the time). (Of course, I am not always successful!) This little mind game keeps me mindful of my actions and thoughts and words towards others. And I always feel better about my day and myself when I am able to be compassionate and patient, and less critical. Thank you, Dr. Alex, for your truthful column. Blessings—

  • I was once in the office of the manager of a small business, and he had this quote up on his wall: “They may not remember WHAT you said, but they will always remember HOW you said it.”

    Thanks for the nice post; definitely something to think about, and remember, when conversations get tense or heated.

    Anne: Well said.


  • Thirty years ago my little brother hid a tape recorder which captured our family interactions one evening. I was in my selfish teenage years then and I was appalled at how negative and horrible I sounded. It had a profound effect on me. I like to think I changed my behavior as a result of that tape but certainly could use a refresher. I think we all would benefit from watching a video of ourselves from time to time. Another good post!

  • Thanks for the reassurance you’re struggling along with the rest of us, Alex! I think you should get bonus points for admitting this publicly. A lot of people, myself included, would find it difficult to admit even in private.

    Then again, nothing like a public admission to make the resolve to improve stronger. I still cringe at something that happened when Katie was four…

    Maureen: Oh, did your story ever strike a nerve with me! If the mistakes that teach me to be a better person are valuable to me I always imagine they’ll be valuable to others, which seems to prevent them from embarrassing me (it’s the mistakes I keep making without learning from that I find embarrassing because they represent flaws I continue to have—those you won’t find me admitting to yet).


  • I am going to watch my tone from now on.

  • Alex,

    Tx so much for your recent posting regarding “tone.”

    It is confidence building to hear earnest practitioners admit their humaneness….and sharing their struggles…recently I have been listening to some “dharma” talks by some teachers from various Buddhist meditation centers in Washington DC and California….they were so re-affirming by reflecting the challenges and accepting way in which they encouraged one to continue striving in the effort to improve one’s own, and hence one’s surrounding impacted individuals’ collective experiences.


  • An amazing thing happened to me recently w/my therapist. I am participating in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (group) & also individual therapy w/the same therapist. One of my difficulties is extreme over-reactions (emotional dysregulation; I do have the diagnosis of bipolar disorder & do take medication but I also really need to learn new ways of interpreting things, coping skills, ways to reduce my over-reacting, etc.). Unfortunately, my mother was very ill w/bipolar & was not able to be helped & she ended her life & my father was an alcoholic so I didn’t get very much modeling on good coping techniques!

    One day my therapist made a remark that made me feel totally crushed emotionally inside yet I didn’t give her a clue in my voice or facial expression. But when I got home I called & left her a message that I could no longer continue therapy w/her as I felt so badly about the remark she had made.

    She called me & wanted me to come in & talk to her about it & it was the most amazing conversation. First of all, she APOLOGIZED for not being sensitive enough to see how distressed I was! She was not defensive in any way at all. I told her she could not have known what I was feeling since I gave her no clue at all. She asked me if I would trust her enough in the future to tell her when something upset me so much. I agreed.

    But what struck me was her total lack of defensiveness as it pointed out how defensive I am about everything! It is not an attractive trait. If I make a mistake I try to point out extenuating circumstances so that it is not really “my fault.” Instead of just saying I’m sorry that I left the milk out or some silly thing I will go to great lengths to make it not really “my fault.” After witnessing her pure defenselessness, I asked her why I had this trait. She told me I seemed to have a great deal of guilt (almost a free-floating sense of guilt) so that even a small thing like leaving the milk out on the counter or forgetting something at the store seems like a major crime to me.

    She said she doesn’t feel guilty as a person I have this core belief that I am somehow guilty (tainted, bad, defective). She knows she is capable, does the best she can & her goal is to help me, not defend herself! What a concept!!

    SG: What a concept, indeed!


  • I’ve been painfully aware of my negativity recently; in my thoughts, my tone, and my assumptions about other people’s intentions. What is most painful is recognizing this in the context of being a parent. Sometimes I watch myself expressing my negativity in front of my child, and it’s as though it’s happening in slow motion and I’m helpless to stop it or take it back. All I feel is this crushing despair and guilt. How does a person acknowledge one’s negativity without it turning into self-loathing? That’s the last thing I want to model to my child!

    Catherine: Managing one’s own negativity is something we all struggle to do. It’s simply a part of being human to be negative. In one sense, Buddhism is practiced for the express purpose of helping us succeed in this battle, a battle, Buddhism argues, that must be waged every minute of every day. That I will sometimes lose the battle at certain moments doesn’t mean I will lose the war to become a more positive, compassionate person. I have both sides to me, as do we all, and it’s up to me to manifest the good one. Forgive yourself when you slip. In Buddhism, our motto is “from today onward.” That is, the past is gone and can no longer be changed or affected. Use your past failures as stern reminders to help you be more successful in the future. Never relax for a moment in your endeavor to master your own negativity. Don’t let yourself slide into believing there will come a day when it will no longer be a challenge for you. I find that if I can maintain a constant spirit of challenge, I don’t get down on myself when I fail to suppress my negativity. It’s tough, though, I’ll tell you that.


  • Thank you for this amazing post, Dr. Alex. This is something I’m also trying to be be much more mindful of. I guess Mel Gibson learned this a little to late.

  • Thanks, Alex. I like the idea of maintaining a constant spirit of challenge; it’s a way to remember how to stay engaged rather than succumbing to a feeling of defeat.

  • I just came back from a week of vacation with my kids, and reading this struck me very hard. When I hear myself interacting with my kids over the past week I can hear the negative tone and it bounces back immediately. I want to change on the spot but always seem to be too caught up in the exchange and emotion and have a hard time taking a step back and as you write fight the battle every minute. I don’t think I need a video or a tape, I already know how I sound, and it is time to change before it’s too late and I need to fight the battle every minute. As always, Alex, you hit a soft spot; thank you!

  • This post really struck a nerve with me—I recently had a bit of a “walk in the desert” which resulted in some insight. Someone working under me confronted me about my tone, and much as I hated to hear it, I knew instantly that her feedback hit home—I had been resentful about my poor health and allowed that resentment to leak into my interactions, which only created a downward-pulling spiral into despair. Reading and rereading books from the Arbinger Institute helped me to recognize that my attitude was creating more problems than the symptoms alone were—it’s no one’s fault when I am ill, and being ill does not entitle me to behave irritably to others. I love the notion of “from today onward”—such a forgiving concept, and something I try to remember when I am tempted to judge others based on past experience: they too may be making changes “from today onward” that we need to watch and listen for.

    Like vjkramer, I know I will fail at my efforts to change sometimes—yeesh, I can think of a time yesterday when I failed in this—but like anything else, keeping it in the forefront as a goal will gradually wear away at the undesirable behavior, like water wearing away stone.

    Trish: I find your comment very encouraging. If the world were only half-filled with people trying to do what you are, even if they failed half the time, I suspect we’d be done with war.


  • Trish’s response has really resonated with me. First, I heartily agree about “from today onward” being such a wonderfully forgiving—and, I find, liberating—concept. If I don’t have to identify with yesterday’s bad behavior I can move on with firmer resolve and clearer intent.

    Secondly, I was so struck by Trish’s image of water wearing away stone because of a profound dream I had awhile ago. In my dream I was confronted by a huge, looming boulder—a giant, heavy, grey obstacle. And something in my dream said, “Flow through it like water”—not around it, but through it. So now when I’m up against something really tough, usually having to do with how I relate to the world, I remind myself to flow like water, and it’s as though my identity dissolves. I feel myself soften, I’m able to be more present and my heart feels more open. I know this has slipped away from the topic of tone but this image has helped me so much that I wanted to share it.

  • Amazing article. I arrived here via StumbleUpon and I’m so glad I did! I needed this!

    Susannah: I’m so glad you found it helpful. Please feel free to share with anyone you think might also find it useful.


  • “From today onward”—it’s funny; for a few years now, I’ve had as a thought experiment, “What would you do if you were starting a video game that began now?” Of course, that was a way of putting aside guilt to try to be a good person. Because of course, it’s all the same thing, just the Gen X version.

  • Give yourself a break, but I know you’re giving yourself a break by becoming more mindful and that’s what will bring more happiness, but give yourself a break.

    It is hard to know what emotions we’re feeling in the moment. I have to say if reading my own emotions was like reading I’d be a poor reader.

    Anyway, It’s good to be aware of our own tone, but also stay away from other’s rotten tone if you truly suspect its source is not yourself.

    All the best,


  • […] a movie of yourself can be quite a revealing experience, as I wrote about in an earlier post, The Importance Of Tone). Ultimately, though, what really gets me to take a criticism seriously is the consequences of not […]