It’s Not Just Words, It’s Also Tone

The word no sounds like a door being shut; yes like a door being opened. Yet meaning can be impacted by the tone used when speaking. A yes said with an eye-roll and resentment can cause distress, while a no spoken with gentle kindness can feel compassionate. Tone can change the emotional experience.

Bubba and I refer to that as the background music behind the words. As in the movies, it can set the stage for how an interaction feels or a scene plays out. Is the person swimming in the water about to be grabbed and hugged? Or grabbed and gutted? If Jaws music is playing, you’ve got a good clue.

I fret that the tone playing when I respond to someone asking for help is unpleasant, as I frequently answer with an annoyed no. Then, despite the no, I help. But because my initial no suggests displeasure and irritation, the help I give feels gutted; diminished. Yes, I’m helping, but my initial no launches the background music that sets the tone, and it’s not warm and welcoming.

I’ve thought, if I’m going to help—and I usually do—why lead with no? Why have the music behind my helping sound dissonant? Why do I help with an edge of resentment?

My behaviors arise out of habit; temperament; familiarity. I wasn’t aware of my annoyed no tendency until a few years ago; it was an insight gained from my relationship with Bubba. In our interactions, we explore stuff that doesn’t feel as if it’s working.  This was one of those automatic responses that just felt icky; to both of us.

So, awareness was gained. Now I’m trying to recalibrate; attempting to lead with an upbeat tone and a more frequent pivot to yes.

I gained a useful perspective on leading with yes from improv theater. A foundational goal of improv is to be supportive of your fellow actors, to make them look good by responding with a resounding yes to whatever they introduce into a skit, and then build on it. When you do a skit, you do it with a Yes, And attitude.

I can’t believe how hot it is in here.

Yes, and the air conditioner is broken.

Yes, and I’m going to have to strip down to my skivvies.

Yes, and that’s going to scare everyone away.

So different than:

I can’t believe how hot it is in here.

No, it’s not.

Sometimes the answer is no. Or not now.

But when said with reassuring vocal background music, it can still deliver a message of love.

Yes. I’m working on it.

Photo source: Gordon Johnson on Pixabay

9 thoughts on “It’s Not Just Words, It’s Also Tone

    1. Yeah, you haven’t seen any posts because my last post was about a year ago. The writer’s block wall I hit knocked me flat. Let’s see if I’m going to–finally–get back up. Thanks for reading and commenting 🙂


    2. Bobbi

      Welcome back, Cindy! Have missed your words of wisdom.

      This one particularly resonated with me as David and I often have discussions about tone of voice. I seem to be more sensitive to his tones. As in, I hear “no” when his word is “yes” or “okay,” but his tone says “nope.” Then, I back up and try to accommodate his “no” to which he responds, “I said I would!” Complicated.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Bobbi, yup, I’ve been missing for a while. This was the post that stymied me last year. I was happy I could find my way through it this year and glad to hear it resonated with you.

        I think both Bubba and I are sensitive to tone. And it gets tangled up in automatic responses that don’t always make sense to me. I re-read my posts from Aug 6 and Aug 8 2019 and realized they were spot on for a recent kerfuffle. Amazing how I learn and forget repeatedly.

        Hope all is well.


  1. Nice to see you again! This resonates with me, especially that improv example you gave. My hubby pointed out how often I start out a reply with “No” when I disagree with something he’s said. It’s better to acknowledge with a “Yes, and…” leading into my opinion. Not that I’ve necessarily transitioned, but at least I’m more aware and try to think first.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nice to see you, too. I definitely took a “break”from my blog.

      Is improv part of your life? The “yes, and” lesson was one of the best things I learned from doing it. But I don’t always remember to do it in real life either!

      Glad my thoughts resonated. They marinated in my files for a year!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, hello there.
    A thought-provoking post. As someone who listens to the words people say and not the “music” behind those words, I don’t pay much attention to the music around the words I speak. A knife wrapped in a beautiful wrapping paper is still going to cut you. That’s my perspective.
    However, I understand your outlook, especially when you say no but then help anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi “One Day at a Time!” I didn’t recognize “Sam “Goldie” Kirk” when I saw your comment.

      You’re so right about a beautifully wrapped knife still cutting. Tone can be intentionally used to mislead and won’t dull a sharp edge.

      Nice to see a familiar face after being gone so long.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s