“Either say something nice or don’t say anything at all.” We’ve all heard versions of this statement growing up, as our caregivers taught us to be friendly and kind to others.
While the intention is good, it can come at the cost of teaching us to suppress our authentic feelings and emotions. This is by no means an approval to be mean or unkind towards others, but in trying only to say nice things, we can often be dishonest about our real feelings and needs. In this episode, Robert shares the example of one of his clients, Sarah, who almost ended her marriage without even telling her husband that she was unhappy. She almost didn’t give him a chance to listen, understand, and improve.
Difficult conversations and situations are universal. We all need to make requests or hear someone out at some point or the other. The tone of voice (on both sides) is imperative to express our wants, feelings, and emotions as we intend them to be. Tones can be coded and misrepresented with positivity and negativity at the same time. Think about the last time someone told you something nice, but you could tell they didn’t really mean it or meant something else altogether. Maybe you’ve done it recently, too — that’s a combination of a positive tone of voice and silent negativity.
Understanding the impact of tone of voice can help you realize how you need to speak about certain things to certain people. Recognizing the difference in your tone of voice gives you clarity about your feelings and allows you to express yourself authentically and in a way that is beneficial. This, in turn, reduces misunderstandings because your tone of voice can continue to develop as a means of expressing your deepest needs.
When you start inquiring within, asking yourself, how best can I express my feelings is an evolved stage of inquiry. Of course, before you begin inquiry, you may need to be aware that you’re not expressing your needs or your vulnerabilities enough. This awareness gives you a chance to improve your tone of voice to share your feelings authentically, and reduce harm. It is vital that with this realization, that you soften the judgment and rejection of yourself. Instead, give yourself the grace to recognize that you need encouragement, support, and kindness — from within and from others. Reframing your thought process from “I should/need to work on my tone of voice,” you could say, “I get to rework my tone of voice — this will help my loved ones and me.” Understanding tone of voice will help you forge better connections and live a more fulfilled life, one that might even inspire you to help the world around you.
Note: Below, you’ll find timecodes for specific sections of the podcast. To get the most value out of the podcast, I encourage you to listen to the complete episode. However, there are times when you want to skip ahead or repeat a particular section. By clicking on the timecode, you’ll be able to jump to that specific section of the podcast. Please excuse any typos or grammatical errors. For an exact quote or comment, please contact us.
Awareness That Heals, Episode 47.
Robert Strock: (00:05)
We’re trying to increase the percentages of times where we can be harmless, where we can be more connected with ourselves, with other people.
The Awareness That Heals podcast helps its listeners learn to develop the capacity, to have a more healing response to emotions and situations rather than becoming stuck. Your host, Robert Strock has practiced psychotherapy for more than 45 years. He wrote the book, “Awareness That Heals: Bringing Heart and Wisdom to Life’s Challenges,” to help develop self-caring and the capacity to respond in an effective way to life’s challenges. Especially at times when we are most prone to be critical or to withdraw together, we will explore how to become aware of our challenging feelings and at the same time find alternative ways to live a more fulfilling and inspiring life.
Robert Strock: (00:56)
Very warm welcome again, to Awareness That Heals where we do our very best to focus on bringing heart and wisdom to our life’s challenges. And we start again and again, with being aware of what’s most difficult for us. And you’ll notice we’re repeating that over and over and over again because it’s so counter to the way we were raised. We were raised to have a persona, and we’re trying to counteract that conditioning, where we have a great interest in, well, what really is most difficult for us. And when we look closely, we see that these difficulties are universal for all of us and it’s part of being human and whether we recognize them or not, they’re there. And if we don’t recognize them, it is part of what creates war alienation, divorce, mediocre friendships. And we have a chance if we really look at our tone of voice as really increasing our odds of being a more peaceful influence in a variety of areas of our life.
Robert Strock: (02:21)
And when we find challenging feelings, while we’re looking at our tones, we’re also looking at how we can care for those challenging feelings. And hopefully even before we speak at these crucial times, now this would set up the ideal conditions for us to be fulfilled in our individualize and to contribute to the world by finding and living from our best selves. So, as we begin, I’d like to introduce Dave, who, as you know, by now, if you’ve been listening to the episodes, you probably know very well is my closest and dearest friend and my partner at the Global Bridge Foundation.
Thank you. Great to be here. And of course, um, as we speak about this particular topic, I have, uh, no shortage of personal memories and experiences between you and I, where we’ve had, uh, an expression of the kinds of tones that would not be considered pleasurable that we have had to work through and I think successfully work through. And, uh, so even with the awareness of tone, well, I guess I’m saying, is it still, it’s still a hell of a challenge to keep on the money?
Robert Strock: (03:42)
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, Dave and I, for those of you that don’t know it we’re not, we’re not lovers. I saw somebody, somebody, somebody actually said, you know, you, you sound so intimate. I thought you were in a gay relationship. I thought he was your partner. But in spite of that, we sort of are like second wives. And so we, we give ourselves the liberty to, to be aggressive with each other and you, we can stop. But I think, I don’t think either one of us are that motivated to be perfectionistic and sweet all the time. So, we’re aggressive and, you know, and, and we’re, we’re strong with each other and we both know there’s going to be a next step, you know, we don’t just let it stay there for long. It might, it might be, uh, five seconds later, or it might be a few hours later.
Robert Strock: (04:33)
And we, we usually calm down by the end of the paragraph, but the first part of the paragraph, isn’t always pretty. And so, we have that understanding between us that, that, that, that is really okay, not desirable particularly, but we know something else is going on in each other’s lives, or we expect something from each other that we haven’t done or something like along that line. Now I wanted to come back to what we did in the last episode, and just give an example of how we could really use tone of voice in a way where we lose it. We acknowledge it, and we find it, and then maybe a couple of other derivatives from there. So, yeah, we’re with our, let’s say, I’m, I’m with my wife, you’re with your wife and, and, and you say, Georgia, I don’t know why you did that. I mean, how many times do I have to tell you not to do that? I mean, I can’t believe that you’re still doing that after 20 years of me telling you not to do that.
Robert Strock: (05:40)
And you pause maybe, and you look and you say, wow, that wasn’t particularly pleasant and maybe an evolutionary step is waiting to happen. And you, and you say to yourself, gosh, that was, I was really an asshole. You know, that was really a shitty way to talk to my wife. A shitty way to talk to anybody. So ideally you take time, you take a few seconds and contemplate and you realize that, and then you come back and you say, you know what, I’m sorry. I spoke to you in that way. Yeah. What I would really like is for you to take care of this thing and that thing, and I’m going to do my best, not to repeat that over and over again. Now another alternative that that would be a humongous breakthrough. That would be a great therapy session. I only have too many of people that speak to their spouses these days, but it reminds my earlier in my career, I have plenty, plenty of examples of that.
Robert Strock: (06:51)
And that’s where intervention, which we’ll get into later. I would stop somebody a third of the way in that, into that sentence and say, do you have any sense of how you sound, as you’re speaking that way. Now I’ll get into that later. And then there’d be all kinds of ways of me mirroring it and reflecting it back to the person. And they would be in denial. And it’s not designed that way. I’d say, yeah. Say, do you have any sense of how you just sounded to me? And of course I had to be very careful not to be sarcastic, not to be superior, you know? And, and hopefully most of the times I, I did decently. So, it’s also important to recognize that we can use tone in a way that is not only negative, but it’s also sometimes I would say for probably 20% of the population, there’s an automatic pilot niceness.
Robert Strock: (07:53)
And so, you never get to know who the person is because they’re going to be nice to you no matter what, and they don’t even realize they’re doing it. So, you probably all have people in your life that, you know, oh, so-and-so is really a nice person. So, case example. So, there was a client named Sarah, and she was telling me that she was about ready to break up with her husband. So, I said, well, how far along are you, you know, how y’all have you been to therapy? You know, have you, have you, have you, have you told him for, how long have you been, how long has it been, fighting for a few years? And she said, her response was, oh, no, no. I was never unkind. You know, I, I always just stayed soft and gentle and encouraging because I wanted to give it the best chance it could have, you know, it was never harsh with him.
Robert Strock: (08:43)
So, my response to her was, you mean, you haven’t even told them that you’re thinking about breaking up. She’s oh, no, no. I, I wanted to wait until I was really clear because I still wanted to give it the best. So, I said, you realize what a double message this is to act like you’re happy and, and, and satisfied with your tone and not even verbally give him an idea of where you are, and this may sound extreme, but this is probably true in two out of 10 people that I’ve seen through the years, professionally and personally. And so, it’s so important as we’ve talked about in the last episode, that when you have difficult feelings that you find a way to talk about them and otherwise you’re not going to be taken seriously. There are so many people who are really good hearts that basically have been taught, it’s good to be good, and it’s bad to be bad, and it’s bad to even let anybody know that you feel bad.
Robert Strock: (09:49)
So, if you don’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all, that’s, that’s the mantra for these people in general. So, there’s no reflection of our deepest need. And there wasn’t a congruency with the intensity, the pain, the frustration, the helplessness, and the words didn’t match it either. So, you can sort of guess what the progression was over a period of the next six months of a gradual revealing stale with a decent vibe, but with a real truth, telling with a decent vibe, and then an acknowledgement that you, you know what, I felt angry, I felt withdrawn. I felt irritated, I felt annoyed, but I’ve been in this habit of being nice. And I don’t want to shock you by suddenly saying, you know what?
Robert Strock: (10:42)
I think I want a divorce because I had shared with her, do you guys have any, how shocked he’s going to be when you’ve been this nice to him all the way through. And so, what ended up happening was he got in touch with what her needs were, which she also, of course, didn’t express. I need you to be softer with me. I need you to be more focused on me. I need you to come home at a certain time. Know, I need you to be present with me. I need you to be interested in what my experience was like. He had no vocabulary for that as she started to reveal her needs, which her positive tone and her silent negativity buried her needs as she started to verbalize them. Guess what, her husband started to be attentive and they moved into what I would call a solidly decent relationship.
Robert Strock: (11:33)
And there was a tremendous amount of progress, and I’m not trying to convey it, you know, the relationship became blissful, but they were two people that were relatively unsophisticated because he wanted someone that was just nice all the time. And she accommodated except that she was not really being real. And I would say that, that they evolve to the point where, you know, at least half the time she was being quite straight with, with him, and he started to understand her needs. He started to become more responsive to them. And it was better than her wildest dreams were as to what it could be, even though it probably from many people’s vantage point would still be, just be viewed as a, a decent relationship for them. They were really happy with it. And it was this successful turning point, all starting with too much positivity in the tone.
I’d like to harken back to the first example you gave in a variation of that, that I seem to have, um, frequently encountered from myself, uh, in my relationship and with others where I will get a response, uh, because in my relationships I invite people to. But I still, because again, as we’ve talked about an episode ago, we’re often so unaware and I’m often so unaware of my tone to begin with that, even when somebody says that didn’t feel good, I, I, I’m looking inside and I’m saying, you know, I, I’m not aware that that’s how I was. I might completely disagree. I might say, you know what? Um, I didn’t experience myself that way. And so, it, it creates a bind and one of the ways I’ve dealt with it. And I’d like to hear from you about this actually, is to say, you know, um, I didn’t experience him. Didn’t experience myself that way, but that’s not how I want to be. And certainly I will pay more attention to how I am with respect to that. And I’m glad you told me how you felt about it. And I’d also invite you to look at how you responded. Um, given that I’m not saying it, but either way, that’s not how I want to be assuming, of course it is how I don’t want to be, which usually it is. And, and that happens to me.
Robert Strock: (13:54)
Yeah. The, the only thing I would add to that, which is really a big, big assistance, I think if it’s practiced is okay. Okay. So, you say that, that wasn’t the way you wanted it to be, take two, go ahead. That, why don’t you repeat the same thing and let’s both listen to it together. Yeah. Really go through another practice, run and see whether you were sensitive or whether there was an edge. And you may, as you’re, as you’re attempting to put it out loud again, right live, right there. Right. Then you may, you may still say no, same as it was before, I was great. You know, I was fantastic. And is this all you, um, or you might, you might stop right in the middle and realized, you know what, I was a little tighter there. I was, I had a little edge.
Robert Strock: (14:47)
Uh, you may even see that I had an edge because I was still a little bit about X, Y, and Z. Uh, but if on the second attempt, you really still don’t see anything, then you have the freedom, being again very careful with your tone, kind of like I have to be as a therapist, you may say, you know, when I really think about it, I actually experienced you as having this tone. And I’m not sure it was me, but I experienced you saying it that way. And then ask whoever you’re talking about, talking to, ask them to do, uh, uh, I don’t want to call it a dry run, a wet run, um, about how they said what they said. So, you’re both put on the spot to really do it again. And that may sound like you’re sort of artificial or contrived, but the truth of the matter is there isn’t any real way to get reassurance, unless you’re able to hear it from a different place, either from the other or from yourself and putting it off into the future.
Robert Strock: (15:59)
Isn’t as reassuring as it sounds, because you both walk away feeling misunderstood, and this gives you a chance right there on the spot to actually practice it. So, one of the things that is really important as a question I believe is why are we so unaware of our tones besides the obvious of what we already talked about, which is that we weren’t taught about it? How do we become tone deaf, you know, because most of us as children, in my experience, we’re tone sensitive. And at five years old, six years old, we instantly knew if our parents wanted to hug us or whether they were lecturing us without the words, the invitation was there, or the criticism was there. The aggression was there, or the love was there. And of course it can be a tweener to something in the middle, but the, the message is really quite evident when, when we’re very young, it’s also true with our peers.
Robert Strock: (17:05)
Now it’s not so obvious, especially when we have set patterns for what happened in our childhood. I mentioned earlier that if we were in a combative situation, that just would have been reality, and we may have lost touch with what we might’ve had touch with when we were two years old or three years old, or four years old, where it was more of a tender quality or more of a gentle quality. And it was generally, and this is very important to pay close attention to. It was frequently for many people too painful or annoying to hear on the one hand, you know, a message was positive in words and yet the energy was negative in, in tone, it became too painful to keep listening. So, We just stop listening to the tone and we just listened to the words. And so many of us became tone deaf as a result.
Robert Strock: (18:09)
So, for example, you might’ve heard from our father or mother, “don’t eat that,” versus “don’t eat that.” And that might be because they had a peanut allergy and it was a loving, loving thing, or it might be that it was a, uh, sweet and, and you were receiving punishment, or we might hear something like, as I did frequently in my childhood, would you clean up your room now, like an incredulous anger about it versus, you know, would you clean it, would you clean up your room, you know, just kind of an innocent statement. And then there’s another one that’s very, very subtle that especially these days is common in parenting where on a regular basis, oh, five times a week. You tell your child, you know, and it comes through consciously as love, but unconsciously, it’s a dependency. It’s a codependency it’s teaching children to need you more than anyone else.
Robert Strock: (19:21)
And it’s like, I miss you. I miss you. I missed you. I missed you versus something that would be more, more lightweight. Gosh, I missed you. You know, just even just low key. And oftentimes I see kids that are in that situation where they obligatory only need to say, I missed you, too. And it sort of teaches the kids not to enjoy their friends or their school as much. Oh no, of course I love you the most. So, it’s actually a hidden dependency. So, sometimes again, the tones can be coded with positivity, as well as negativity. So, another client example, so a client came in, she was a very, let’s say assertive attorney classic, uh, sort of, uh, aggressive tone. And she started off saying to me, and I could hear it right at the beginning of the way she said it, I seem to be picking the wrong people, you know?
Robert Strock: (20:31)
And I asked her, could you hear your tone? Just the way you said that? And she looked at me like she wanted to hit me. What do you mean? What are you talking about my tone? Like, what do you mean? And I said, well, my experience is, while you were describing the people, you were angry, you’re irritated, you were annoyed. And she said, I think you’re wrong. I think you’re judging me. I re, I really, really think that, you know, I, you know, I don’t know what what’s up with you, you know, you, you don’t seem like you’re the kind of therapist that I want to be with. So, I said to her in a very soft, but firm tone, what’s your sense of how you’re talking to me now, which really pissed her off, but at least made her think. So, she paused after about four in a row, she was disoriented.
Robert Strock: (21:29)
And this led to a long series of sessions where she appreciated eventually the directness and had an increasing self-reflection and became more and more harmless and less angry and superior. And this, this was something that really was really over a period of a couple of years where this was a tendency and it became less and less a tendency. And I would guess it’s going to last till she dies that she’s not going to get over it, but she’s going to be more aware of it. She’s going to be more harmless. And one of the, one of the premises in all of my work is not about arriving. It’s not about being perfect, virtually none of us are going to ever be perfect. It’s about being on a continuum and getting a much higher percentage of the time. If we have perfection or arriving or understanding or faith and we have it as an absolute, we’re putting ourselves in a prison, we’re trying to increase the percentages of times where we can be harmless, where we can be more connected with ourselves, with other people. And we’re not laying a trip of ourselves, of perfection, or if we are, we’re noticing it and then we’re, and we’re embracing that and saying, I can’t be perfect. I can improve. And I have this aspiration to improve.
I want to reflect on something with that example specifically, and then expand it, which is, I love her statement. I’m picking the wrong people and obviously a pattern in life. And so many patterns in life are repetitive. And like you said, in her case will be to some degree repeating for the rest of her life. And I think it’s, for me always been, uh, the examination of patterns. I know of one pattern, which I’ve described in our podcasts of, uh, being completely unaware of my needs. I was aware of that pattern when I was 19. That is a hell of, I mean an embarrassingly long time ago, but it’s also clear to me, as you were talking about this, that, that onion we’ll be continuing to peel for forever and other ones, you know, relationships with coworkers or, uh, a variety of ways relating to people in positions of authority or relating to people that, uh, I have a certain degree of power or control over, uh, relating to my medical conditions and, and, and levels of anxiety or fear that I experienced. And these kinds of patterns are threads in my life. Um, and I think that’s an important element that you just described.
Robert Strock: (24:22)
Yeah. And I think the important thing in those, uh, universally human states is that it’s not just the states are there and we abandon them. Hopefully if we can have an awareness of not expressing our vulnerability enough or our needs enough, like you’re talking about, then we can increase the percentage of times that we, we are doing that. And when we realized that’s happening, rather than judging ourselves for that, we can say, I need encouragement. I need support. I need kindness. I need to reveal. And, and so whenever we become aware of a challenging emotion, the reason why we were taught to ignore challenging emotions in general is because we weren’t ever learned the skills of caring for them. And so, it’s so important to see that it’s a partnership between challenging emotions and caring for them. And it’s like, it’s like eventually a Pavlovian response where whenever I’m feeling challenged, there’s a pivot.
Robert Strock: (25:43)
There’s a, there’s a suggested, oh, this sucks, I hate feeling this way. And then it’s sort of like, oh, wait a minute. That’s not going to help. Now, what is going to help? What’s going to help is asking myself, how can I care for myself, given that I’m experiencing this repeating universal human condition? How can I care for myself? Because we usually stay with, if you’re feeling bad, like angry or mean, or impatient, well, that’s bad. So, I’m not going to care for that versus I’m going to care for that. Now care for that doesn’t mean condone that it needs. I’m going to care for myself because when I’m in some kind of suffering, there’s going to be a need that I’m not noticing, and I’ve got to figure out what would it be? That would be helpful if I were to take care of my anger or take care of my aloneness or take care of the needs that I haven’t revealed that you just mentioned.
Robert Strock: (26:52)
Well, I need to keep repeating that. I need to even have practice sessions when it’s, when I’m not live, I need to wake up in the morning and say, okay, you know what, this is my life tendency. So, I need to reveal my vulnerability when that’s happening so that I’m not attending to other people’s vulnerabilities so much. I need to look at that list of needs. And I need to circle the ones that are dominant and really look at that list on a daily basis. Just the ones that are most frequent the last month, the last week today. So, all of us are going to be human until we die. And all of us are going to have some degree of quality of life. And the key is with tone of voice, it can be like, almost like a printout at one level, you’re saying the words, but the tone of voice is a completely different printout, which says, oh, this is conveying a tone of exasperations.
Robert Strock: (27:50)
When we met, might be saying something completely different. So hopefully this is a enticement or a encouragement to, oh, I get to look at my tone. Not I should not have to, but I get to look at my tone. This is going to give me a much better chance to have a quality, quality of life and inspiring life, a much more fulfilling life. We can start to see how powerful it is to be able to have a chance to be harmless when we’re harmful, to be contemplative when normally we’re impulsive. When we’re opinionated, we can learn how to inquire when we’re just talking about things that don’t matter at all and we’re boring people, and we’re, we’re off in our own world. We can learn how to be silent when we’re angry, we can learn how to contain ourselves. So, all these times of being more aware of our tone can be like a mini miracle.
Robert Strock: (28:57)
It’s definitely a stage of evolution of inquiring. What is my tone of voice like? And like Dave mentioned earlier, what are people letting me know? My tone of voice is like, if I can’t see it for myself, what’s the reaction to it now for some people that are always too neutral, so they never get any read, they’re just flat. So, maybe you need to see that you’re just a flatliner and you need to amplify whatever you really feel, or at least internally amplify, so you can see it. So,this mini miracle of seeing our tone of voice and being able to have our seeing and our tone of voice come together, and that seeing that really can guide us to, do we need to care for ourselves because we’re suffering or are we actually expressing something that is improving our quality of life? And if we aren’t, it’s not about judging.
Robert Strock: (29:53)
It’s about learning how to care for ourselves. So, our tone of voice can authentically come through. This is not a mechanical exercise to just change our tone of voice, disrupt, nothing. No, this is a reflection. First of deeply, seeing where we are, and then doing the inner work to find an intention, to heal, to find an intention to care, find an intention to want to be closer, to be more connected. And that intention is what can change our tone of voice from an authentic place. My dearest, greatest wish is to see the ramifications for all of us, that if we see our tone of voice and we do this inner work, all of our lives, we’re going to be more connected and more fulfilled, and we have a chance to really help the world around us, so badly needs it. Thank you very much for your attention.
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