What’s tone of voice? It’s the way you speak to another person — in sound and often with hidden meaning, the way you express yourself. It reflects our innermost motivations, reactions, and, when applicable, our character and wisdom — even when we aren’t aware of our wisdom or don’t have access to it yet.
Is there a way we can go inside ourselves to learn how to convey our tone of voice in a way that creates benefit? Again, the idea is to impact our attitude and learn to contemplate our intention — what do we truly want to convey?
Doing this is like a sport, a creative endeavor, or developing any form of intelligence. It requires practice, discipline, and sincerity. For example, we can convey to ourselves, “I really want to be more patient when we are feeling impatient.” This can be like a prayer or we can do it with half of our attention and depth. The beneficial intention and embodiment in the heart are what make all the difference.
This understanding typically requires many repetitions for us to find our sincerity to generate the attitude that is most desired and evolved. It doesn’t come cheaply or easily. We need to do the inner work, but it is one of the most important areas of development that each of us can work on.
Here are some helpful ways to break this down:
Start by looking at yourself closely (to a degree that might be different than you’ve ever done) and being honest about what your general and specific tones of voice are conveying, especially looking at ones that are potentially injurious.
It will help if you ask yourself, what are your tendencies?
Are you most often tense, withdrawn, irritable, or down? Are you impatient, detached, or irritated specifically with certain people? These are mere examples of what your tendencies could be. Use them as examples as you contemplate your own intention to move toward relaxation, engagement, calm, and peace.
This allows you to identify the people that are difficult for you and the tones that most frequently arise. You will also be able to notice your general tendency to see how much you are in your heart, mind or just being reactive. This is not something that we’re taught to observe closely, and it requires not just being satisfied and okay with how you usually see yourself. There needs to be a healthy amount of self-doubt that is interested in the truth and creating a positive impact and a new perspective where you look at yourself from a fresh, clear lens.
This is an area where most of us want to believe we are more tolerant when we are intolerant, kind when we are tense, patient when we are impatient, etc.
The majority of us tend to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt and believe that most of the challenging emotions occur from the “other person.”
This pattern is what we call “projection” in the psychological world, and it’s one of the most transformational pieces of understanding that we can have. Many of us can understand how this works when it comes to others because it is relatively very easy to see it outside ourselves. On the other hand, it is actually very uncommon to be able to see it accurately and proportionally inside ourselves.
Why understanding tone of voice is an opportunity and blessing
It is a crucial opportunity for each of us who are humble and courageous enough to see that we can utilize our tone of voice with this needed contemplation to bring us closer to our own hearts and those around us, especially those we desire. It also supports us in putting out a clearer message to those we have mixed emotions about by not being too nice or too detached or impatient. This requires further contemplation about how we want to address certain issues with what we say, and by saying what we really mean, it allows us to convey our message with a sincere tone.
This opportunity is not something we need to see as a “should do” or as a pressure. Ideally, it comes from our own sincerity and innocence that has expanded respect and understanding that we need to increase our capacity for self-observation and pivoting toward our best intentions and qualities. You might be like 90% of the population where you will have areas that you’ll need to develop more sensitivity towards. These moments and circumstances are when you’ll need to listen to your tone. This is a key to influencing our lives’ quality and has a profound effect on those near us.
It could help many of us to record our voice to see how we sound and if it matches what we think we are conveying. This kind of sincere interest and desire to be objective is one of the great sources of love, innocence, and intimacy. It is also an excellent method of creating damage control for persistent patterns that aren’t pleasant or conflictual.
Be alert that you aren’t just going through the motions. It is truly a significant change in our lives when we break life-long patterns. Both as a therapist and as a student, I realize how easy it is to believe that we are looking closely at ourselves, but we aren’t actually. I assure you that almost every time I take a close look with my clients, friends, or myself, I can see new things repeatedly. Changes in perception don’t happen very often because our identity is based on a series of distorted perceptions that almost all of us are attached to believing.
Don’t be surprised if many of them are the people that you have the closest relationships with. In psychology, these are referred to as your “attached relationships.” It is well understood that almost all of us have a more challenging time being reliably sensitive with those that we are attached to than our friends or people that are more like acquaintances.
If you are a therapist or are already very familiar with this — don’t give yourself a pass just yet. In my experience, there is at least as much of an issue with counselors, and professionals as there is with clients and the general population. It is easy to understand why we would be more reactive with those closest to us as they matter more to us, and we need them to agree, be happy, and see our innocence more than others.
This is usually pretty easy to understand but it’s hard to see the subtleties of how we all too frequently believe that the root cause of the issue is the other person to a much larger percentage than ourselves. We will commonly say something like, “I feel this because you said or did…, not because I’m generating my own feeling,” to ourselves and then ultimately to them.
There are exceptions to this where some people are much more focused on self-blame and reverse the process. This will almost invariably be true for those of us who came from family systems where we were the ones that were blamed unfairly. This can be complicated as it can often lead to continuously blaming ourselves when our tone is relatively kind, humble, self-doubting, or apologetic.
To make things more complex and accurate, this person who has been wounded in childhood by taking on a lot of the family blame can sometimes take too much responsibility when they look at the tone and also vacillate to the other extreme out of retaliation. They might then blame the other the same way most of us do as well as give themselves a hard time because of their conditioning.
It requires careful evaluation of what your tendency is.
Take a few moments to reflect on whether you were someone who had more of a normal or conventional background and were not blamed more than the others in your family. This essential self-evaluation will help you find a more objective look at your tone and your tendency to blame yourself, others or both.
Now, take a look inside and ask yourself —
“Where is my tone of voice most challenging and who are the people that this occurs with the most?”
Can you identify the five people with whom you have the most tension, struggle, frustration, or impatience? The ones that annoy, irritate, or you find difficult. It is often helpful to write each person’s name on a piece of paper and label the challenging quality of the tone that you think is either coming from them or yourself. This is a helpful method to give yourself a better chance to at least glimpse the area that needs to be examined more closely.
If you don’t have a pen and paper handy, take a moment to close your eyes and imagine those five people standing in a circle around you. If you can only think of less than five, be content to just focus on those that come to you naturally. Above them, let yourself visualize the challenging tone of voice. If you’re unsure about the specific emotion or have too many names for what it could be, consult our free Introspective Guides of 75 challenging feelings and emotions and 75 essential qualities. It’ll help you put a name to the emotion, and the tone of voice expressed in a clear way.
It’s helpful to write this down because the next step is to scan the list, see their name, and remember the last conflict or tense moment you both had or one that is most consistently occurring between you. Do this for each of the five people on the list.
Take a comprehensive look using the lists or take your time to contemplate the emotional feelings that were exchanged and expressed. Let all the emotions you sense exist before you start identifying who expressed which emotions.
This is the point of pause, the point of deeper and more beneficial contemplation.
Try to think about it like you both experienced a combination of tones — yours and theirs, a tone that, for a while, can be seen as ‘our’ tone.
See that this is the energy that the two of you exchanged, and do your best not to assign anyone the particular tones that were most undesirable and or offensive. As you continue to contemplate, realize you want to come back to this as a way of watching in slower motion the tones from each of you to become more adept at finding your own tone accurately.
This is an exercise that is very healthy to continue with every relationship that you have even a minor conflict with (which is probably almost everyone). The point isn’t to assign blame but to look for the tones that appear more often, recognize them accurately and then ask yourself — “Which of these tones do I most want to change? What intentions inside my heart do I most want to access and bring more forward?” The intentions will increase the likelihood of a more connected and peaceful outcome.
This is rarely a quick fix but is a way to demonstrate your caring, honesty, and dedication continuously. Similar patterns in tones of voice are universal. They are one of the few reliable sources of seeing how both conflict and intimacy get mislabeled and can lead to great limitations and unravelings.
Even if it is only a limitation, it is still worthwhile to give it attention to improve both your quality of life and others’ too. In nearly 50 years of being a therapist, many of my clients first see these insights almost as an act of magic. It’s magical to reflect on what someone sounds like and contrast it with the qualities that the speaker desires and believes they are conveying.
The stakes are high when it comes to our tone of voice and what we express to others. When you are inspired and take an interest in the connection between your tone of voice and your quality of life, you will also be able to care better for yourself and others. As we highlighted earlier, your tone of voice reveals your intentions, emotions, and heart, so it’s a potential gold mine in getting to know ourselves better.
More information and support to help you work on your tone of voice and understand other people’s tone of voice is on our podcast, Awareness That Heals. Please also feel free to do a guided meditation as you work to understand your inner intentions and heart through your tone of voice.