Send the Right Message: Monitor Your Choice of Voice
When we communicate with our coworkers, what’s important in getting our point across is not just what we say, but how we say it. Most of the time, we have control over our tone of voice. We intuitively know how to moderate our tone to convey friendliness, seriousness, anger, disappointment, or excitement.
For example, consider the simple question, “How are you doing?” Imagine how you might ask this question if you wanted to express frustration when a team member is trying to locate an elusive bug. Now think about how you’d say it when you want to communicate impatience, or disappointment, or condescension. And now think about saying it with concern, friendliness or warmth. Your voice varies its tone with each version. If you’re face to face with the person you’re asking, your facial expression and body language can reinforce the tone.
Even though English is not a tonal language, it’s in some ways similar to tonal languages. In Mandarin Chinese, for example, a single syllable can be spoken with a flat tone, a low-to-high tone, a high-to-low tone, or a high-to-low-to-high tone. Depending on the tone used, the simple syllable ma can mean “mother,” “hemp,” “horse,” or “scold”—not exactly trivial differences.
Now think about how many ways you can say no. With a simple tweak of your tone, you can convey surprise, sarcasm, anger, fear, uncertainty, or “don’t you dare,” to name just a few possibilities. What about the many ways you can say “really”? In even the briefest utterance, you can easily convey different attitudes and intentions.
Sometimes, though, you may be oblivious to how your tone comes across to others. Sometimes, that little tweak can make a comment or question sound angry, upset, or confused when that wasn’t your intention. Your tone also may add ambiguity so that listeners misunderstand what you’re saying—or different listeners come away with different understandings.
Stress, in particular, can distort your intended tone of voice. When a critical deadline is looming and you’re approaching panic level, it may be that you wanted to convey supportiveness or encouragement, but your stress level modulated your tone just enough that instead you conveyed distrust or anxiety. In the process, your stress level could exacerbate the stress level of the recipients.
It’s a good idea to notice your tone of voice during calm times so that you can better control the tone you convey during those stressful times.