Couples, Your Tone May be Ruining Your Communication! Tips to Stop the Confusion!

You know how people say, “It’s not what you say, it’s HOW YOU SAY IT?” I’m here to tell you, it’s a real thing and if it keeps coming up in your relationship, I am here to offer some insight and tools!

As a licensed Marriage and Family therapist in New York City, I have seen hundreds of couples in my private practice alone, not to mention the countless families I have worked with throughout NYC and Westchester County. All socioeconomic groups, and I do mean, ALL. Different cultures, ages, sexual orientations, etc. and I can tell you one of the most profound observations I have made during my career and lifetime is that at the end of the day, people are people, meaning mostly everyone wants to feel seen and be spoken to with respect.

Fellow human being, we are more the same than we are different.

As a culture, as well as in my field, we talk a lot about how to have effective communication. I have written blogs specifically around, Validation Do’s and Don’ts, How to Create Emotional Safety in Your Relationship, and Couples Start Arguing Less by Putting Ego to Rest because I am dedicated and passionate around giving couples tools to support their relationships. My goal is to help couples thrive and support the individuals within those relationships with existing authentically while also enjoying their relationship! Today, I want to give center stage to the voice and an important factor that may impact how your message is received:

TONE

I believe this has been a miss on my part in terms of giving it the spotlight, its very own blog. I talk about it DAILY. There is not a day of sessions that goes by that this does not come up. TONE. My hope, is that by the end of this blog, you will go into conversations with your loved one’s reminding yourself that although you may be using thoughtful words and mean those words wholeheartedly, if they lack warmth and passion in tone, they just might be a miss. In fact, your message will probably be diluted, by tone alone.

Sweet words with contradictory tone and body language send mixed signals which can lead to mistrust.

This is unfortunate because more often than not, partner’s mean what they say. There can be many reasons why a person is coming across as cold, disconnected, and detached. I am not here to judge, simply to support your message being delivered and you being heard in a way that accurately conveys your true feelings and intent.

The Research? Let’s go deeper

The numbers, the research, the controversy!

The past research “proved” that 93% of communication was non-verbal and 7% verbal (the words we choose). Those numbers come from two studies done in 1967, that were run by Psychologist Albert Mehrabian. Many current experts in the field of communication have shared that those numbers are untrue, that the sample was too small, that the research is outdated, and that Mehrabian himself stated that he never meant for those numbers to apply to ALL communication! Well, there you have it!

Have what exactly?

Well, now you know that those numbers may not be exact and that the conversation around the exact percentages is controversial. However, what the current research tells us is that it ALL matters. Your words do matter. Your tone does matter. Your behavior does matter. IT ALL MATTERS!

According to Edward G. Wertheim, Ph.D. in his article, The Importance of Effective Communication (I will leave the link below). Dr. Wertheim identified 5 Roles non-verbal cues can play in communication (I will expand on the cues a bit):

5 ROLES NON-VERBAL CUES PLAY

  • Repetition: Non-verbal cues serve as matching/repeating the message you are conveying verbally. Meaning that your non-verbal cues are matching your words. When all forms of communication match, it leads the listener to feeling safer, and the communicator is therefore more believable and seems more trustworthy.
  • Contradiction: It is this particular cue that causes the most damage during communication. Your non-verbal cues can send the opposite message of what your words are sending/saying. Your tone, body language, and gestures may not match, be incongruent, and/or contradict your words. When your non-verbal cues do not match your words, it usually leads to mistrust and confusion.
  • Substitution:  A non-verbal cue may substitute a verbal message. This can be a look in your eyes (some say the eyes are the windows to our soul) that conveys your message more vividly than words ever could.
  • Complementing: Think of this as the cherry on top. It is a non-verbal cue that complements your words or adds to the message your words are trying to convey. An example would be if your verbally expressed that you are excited for your partner’s promotion and then reached in and gave them a hug while sharing you are proud of them with your words.
  • Accenting: This non-verbal cue is like putting your words in bold, all caps, and underlining. According to Dr. Wertheim, “it may accent or underline a verbal message. Pounding the table, for example, can underline the importance of your message.”

TYPES OF NON-VERBAL COMMUNICATION (Special Focus on Voice):

Voice is highlighted below, I also make mention of 6 other non-verbal cues below for your reference:

1. VOICE – What makes this a non-verbal form of communication is that it is considered paralinguistic (part of communication that does not involve words, such as intonation, volume, pitch, timbre, and speed) in which the inflection or sound is what is sending a particular message. I am starting with voice because it is the cue we are honing in on in this blog and it is usually the form of non-verbal communication that comes up most in session. It often leaves both the communicator and the receiver of the message frustrated and confused .

When it comes to the session room (and even sometimes in my personal life), I frequently run across the same issue: One partner shares something verbally and when doing so is completely unaware of what their tone and inflection sound like. I usually hear the receiver tell the communicator:

You sound like a robot”

You sound like you are talking to a stranger”

I heard no emotion at all in your voice, do you even care?”

You’re using the right words but you sound inauthentic!”

Now, think about the other partner, the communicator. Can you imagine how they feel? Have you ever been told similar words? Have you used them? Put yourself in the shoes of the communicator. They had a long day, they have things on their mind. They are really trying to show up for their partner and they are being 100% authentic. In fact, they are quite proud of themselves for getting to a point in their own self development where they are able to hold a safe space and say validating statements.

EXAMPLE: Taken from a recent session (true story):

Communicator:I love you babe, I know we will work this out, we have the tools so we will get through this.”

I am wondering how you, the reader, just read that statement made by the communicator. Did the voice in your head read it in a warm or passionate tone? or did you read the words with no tone at all? The tendency of most people is to attach a warm tone to words and phrases like the one’s the communicator used in the example above. I mean come on, let’s admit it, those words are great! There’s the reinforcement of love and commitment, along with a term of endearment. Who wouldn’t be happy to hear those words?

I know someone who was not happy with that message? Can you guess who it was? It was the partner on the receiving end! Although the words are thoughtful, what you are not privy to is how it was said, the good ol’ “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” at play. It was shared in a monotone pitch, low and slow paced, the facial expression was also expressionless. The tone used made it impossible for the receiver to know how the communicator felt because the tone was flat. Hmmm, what message do you think that sent? A contradiction, maybe? How do you think the receiver felt? I can tell you, they felt hurt, confused, and mistrusting. They shared,

Receiver:

Don’t sound so enthusiastic!”(said sarcastically).

I am here pouring out my heart, trying to share my feelings and you are yessing me.”

“I feel like you are trying to pacify me and as if you find this conversation boring!”

“If you don’t mean it, please don’t share it.”

You are either disinterested in me, this relationship, or both.” “Talk about low energy!”

How do you think the communicator felt? I can tell you that as well. They too felt hurt, confused and frustrated. Why? because:

Communicator:

“I don’t understand what’s wrong, I said I love you, I said we’ve got this and you are getting on me for tone…really? I can’t win…” (btw – “I can’t win” is a common response when a partner shares any type of unfavorable feedback).

You ask me to validate and use team language, I do that and I am still wrong?”

“I really feel like you just want to fight and have a problem when there doesn’t need to be one.”

You know I had a long day, can you consider how tired I am and not take it personally?”

I can talk for days and days about how this couple can get out of this conflict with the tools of Validation, not making assumptions, not taking things personally, etc. please see my validation blog for more info. However, once again, the purpose of this blog is to HIGHLIGHT TONE.

If only the communicator would have shared with their partner those same exact comforting words with warmth or passion in their tone and would have been fully present, everything would have been different. The entire interaction would have gone a different way. The words were spot on, the delivery was not only lack luster (unbeknownst to the communicator), it was also distancing and contradictory. Tone is used to clarify meaning and if is is contradictory, it is extremely confusing.

I was able to intervene and support the couple with understanding how their dance could have looked differently. I asked what each of them could have done differently. The parts of the sequence I highlighted were, the noble intent behind the Communicators message, the Receiver being able to give the benefit of the doubt while sharing how they experienced the communicator and why. I then had the Communicator slow down, take a few deep breathes, get fully present, and try again.

I specifically asked, “If you could not rely on only your words to convey this message, how would you get it across to your partner?” How can you show them warmth/passion? How can you let them know you care? How will they know you are 100% present in this moment with them?

If you were texting, what emoji would you use? We use emoji’s in text so the receiver understands the emotion behind the words. Are you being expressive (using non-verbal cues) of the emotions behind your words?

The Communicator tried again and needless to say they nailed it! So much so that they elaborated on what they originally said and shared it with a warm tone, as well as deep, focused eye contact. The Receiver was so touched, they cried and thanked their partner. They shared they both felt closer and seen after the exercise. See what awareness, intension, accountability, and slowing down can do!

Brief description of the other types of non-verbal communications:

2. Facial expressions – The human face is extremely expressive and many facial expressions are the same across cultures.

3. Body movement and posture –  The way you sit, walk, hold your head, as well as your posture and movements you make both overt and subtle communicates a lot to those around you.

4. Gestures – Such as a thumbs up, waving and pointing, as well as using your hands when speaking and during conflict.

5. Eye contact – HUGE! Eye contact communicates a world of thoughts and emotions. It can show hostility, affection, attraction, fear, etc. It also supports conversation flow and helps communicate interest.

6. Touch – The act of touch can be a major communicator from a big hug, to a touch on the knee, a caress of your face, a high five, pat on the back, are all examples of sending a message without words.

7. Space – We all need physical space and the amount you have can communicate intimacy and affection and can also be indicative of dominance.

HELPFUL TIPS FOR BOTH THE RECEIVER AND THE COMMUNICATOR

Sidenote re: Contradiction – It is the most confusing cue. It leads to the most arguments. Remember that the way you can get through it as a couple is to stay curious about it.

STAY CURIOUS when either yours or your partner’s words and cues do not align, don’t judge it and don’t take it personally! If they do not match, if it is a mixed message, rather than get defensive, use the tool of compassionately asking

HOW COME?

Example of times this happens:

  • A partner is furious/extremely triggered and they use a harsh tone and say, “I AM FINE, I LOVE YOU, I JUST NEED A MINUTE!” You may say to yourself, “that was not warm and fuzzy, they’re saying they are fine but they don’t seem fine.” Your partner may be trying to keep you emotionally safe or keep themselves calm or avoid an argument…there can be many reasons. Remember, STAY CURIOUS and ask HOW COME YOUR TONE DOES NOT MATCH YOUR WORDS?

Both the Communicator and the Receiver deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt. They both deserve to be given an opportunity to be heard and validated. They both have unique challenges and are in the interaction together. You are both on the same team. Set yourselves and your conversation up for success by ensuring you are individually ready to have the conversation. Taking at least 5 -10 minutes before having a tough conversation gives you time to take some deep breaths/mindful breathing, remind yourself that you are on the same team, that your partner deserves to be validated, and that your message gets to be heard. Ask yourself, “How can I get my message across in a respectful manner that is also authentic to how I am feeling right now and ensure my partner still feels cared for and safe?”

Tips for the Receiver – Try to not take their tone personally. If your partner’s tone is a contradiction, take a deep breath and let them know/bring it to their awareness. Give them the benefit of the doubt/grace and stay curious about what is happening on their end. Remember, when you share how you are hearing them, say it with warmth and love. Do not blame. Do not shame. Your teammate needs you to show up!

Tips for the Communicator – Take a deep breath before communicating. Remind yourself that you are speaking to someone you care about. Remind yourself that you are on the same team. Think about the message you would like to convey and how you would like to be heard. Then ensure that you are conveying that message, with your words and tone. If the Receiver shares that your tone is triggering them or that your tone seems incongruent/contradictory to what you are saying, take another deep breath and do not take it personally. Stay curious, ask them more about how they are hearing you. Validate them, and then try again. Your message gets to be heard!

BOTTOM LINE: SPEAK WITH LOVE (in words and with non-verbal cues), DON’T TAKE THINGS PERSONALLY, AND STAY CURIOUS!

Wishing you and your relationship the very best always!

With love, Tamara

Resource: Edward G. Wertheim, Ph.D. in his article, The Importance of Effective Communication

Click to access effectivecommunication5.pdf

TODAY, The Art of Being Present…

Today.

Today is the day we are in. It may be obvious. However, the reminder necessary.

Why?

The thoughts of yesterday keep us stuck. Reflecting and acknowledging how we have grown supports us. However, rumination leads to stagnation and at times self deprecation. Negative self-talk is fed by our filters. Narratives amplified by what we choose to extract. Consciously? Subconsciously? Unconsciously? Who knows? Let me think about that.

Let. Me. Think. About. THAT.

OVERTHINKING. Analyzing the steps taken on roads already traveled, hoping reflection will bring us closer to our desired destination.

Perhaps it’s closure we are seeking, believing closure exists in the rehashing of our narratives. Rehashing? Perhaps visual reenactments. Is it rooted in healing and progressing? Do you sit with it, and stay with it, get bought in to it, and stay stuck in it? Fighting to find the reframe…searching for that reframe. Where are you going? Can you look ahead and back at the same time?

Take the experience. Learn from the past. Integrate those discoveries into your present moment. This present moment. Acknowledge, don’t dwell. Notice, don’t get stuck. Thank you yesterday, I appreciate you, good-bye.

Today.

Today is the day we are in. It may be obvious. However, the reminder necessary.

How come?

Thoughts of tomorrow cloud my vision, intrusive whispers, they betray my peace, disassemble my meditation piece by piece, intrusive whispers turn to roars, once a clouded vision now a thunder storm, and I fear it will become my norm. Do I talk about it? Maybe I should…I’m torn. It feels all encompassing when anxiety takes this form. Can I exist in something different or was I born to exist in the storm? I’m catastrophizing.

Today.

Today is the day we are in. How do you feel right now? Breathe.

Take another breath.

Take one more.

Let your breath be the reminder.

This feeling is Universal.

Today.

Today is the day we are in. It may be obvious but the reminder necessary.

Today, I feel compelled to tell you. Today, I feel the desire to share. The knowingness of the obvious will not stop my reiteration, it is a necessary reminder for me. Today I write this message with urgency…I share it with you and I wrote it for humanity. We all have moments where we get to stop and breathe, consciously.

We all have moments when we look ahead and are not sure what the next steps are, either busy looking back, or creating a thunder storm in our minds that blinds us. Windshield wipers don’t work in a downpour. When we struggle to see, and we struggle to hear, when we struggle to know, there is one thing we can do. We can breathe. Today. Now. Breathe and in that mindful breath, remember your light. Remember the feeling of the sun on your face. Remember that you have that warmth within. The key is to remember that where there is dark there is light. YOU ARE THE LIGHT. My wish for you, is that you love openly & live authentically, today.

We are all living this human experience.

TODAY IS THE DAY WE ARE ALL LIVING IN, TOGETHER.

TOGETHER.

IT MAY NOT BE OBVIOUS, SO THE REMINDER IS ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY.

Couples Accountability Check – Why You Need to Own Your Role!

Life is essentially all about relationships. The relationship we have with ourselves, our partner, family, friends, and essentially all things! I became an LMFT in order to support people with creating and sustaining happy, healthy, ever evolving relationships while living authentically. I have come to understand that when reflecting on my own relationships, there is of course that one common denominator, ME! When there are themes I find less than appealing in my relationship, although it would be great to be able to put all the blame on my partner, I get to ask myself, “what have YOU done to co-create this relationship dynamic?”

The same with you my friend. YOU are the common denominator in your relationships. I have some questions for you, how do you feel about the current state of your romantic relationship? Is it passionate? Does it excite you? Does it lack depth? Are you too busy to maintain it? Do you even want to? Now the big question…

WHAT HAS YOUR CONTRIBUTION BEEN TO THE CURRENT STATE OF YOUR RELATIONSHIP?

While the tendency for most is to blame the other person when the relationship is stressed/strained, there still does exist the partner that takes on too much ownership and ends up feeling like they are always apologizing. I have had countless clients over the years share that they are consistently taking the one down, validating, and apologizing to their partner when they believe they have done nothing wrong. Clients share that they get tired of feeling like they are doing most of the work during conflict and either end up apologizing for all of it (over accountability) or they decide to stop validating all together and take no accountability or shut down (which usually leads to more conflict). Do you fall in either one of the two extremes? If so, which one?

Over accountability – You are owning too much (your role and theirs). Apologizing for the entire miscommunication and invalidating your own feelings. You may be bought into an old narrative that it is always your fault. Sometimes people will refer to an “empath” as a person who can over identify with the other person and absorb a disproportionate amount of the blame. Taking too much responsibility can also be a sign of a person who has fear of being alone (abandonment) and/or fear of conflict (conflict avoidant).

Under accountability – You are not owning your role (you are placing a majority of the blame on your partner). You point the finger at them, you blame them, and you are bought into a story that it is usually their fault. Sometimes people who do not own their role are considered selfish, they may lack self awareness, sometimes you can find that characteristic in a person who has narcissistic personality disorder, and they may use tactics such as gaslighting to make their partner feel like they have done something wrong. (Side note, just because someone struggles with owning their role does not automatically mean that they are a narcissist)

Just good ol’ Accountability – Both partners get to take accountability for their role in the conflict. We ALL get to accept responsibility for our actions and acknowledge how our actions impact the people we love. Emotional maturity means being able to be less ruled by emotions and having the ability to own our role without placing blame on others. It is much easier to blame, finger pointing is something that comes naturally for most. However, two people continuing to blame and point the finger of shame at one another are equally contributing to an unsafe/hostile environment. Instead of pointing your finger, use that hand to pick up a mirror and SEE YOURSELF!

WHAT IF WE AS INDIVIDUALS DID OUR WORK?

Work? Work meaning, what if we mean what we say and say what we mean? What if we stopped making assumptions about what our partners are thinking and what if we stopped assuming that we know how they feel? What if we stopped making everything about us as if they are out to get us and what if we STOP TAKING THINGS PERSONALLY? What if we were to show up as the best version of ourselves (highest selves) for each interaction and every conversation? What would that mean?

The book “The Four Agreements,” by Don Miquel Ruiz, addresses these topics directly. The book was recommended to me by a loved one when I first started my private practice and I recommend it to everyone. The Four Agreements being 1) Be Impeccable with your word 2) Don’t make assumptions 3) Don’t take anything personally 4) Always do your best. What if we were to “work” on focusing on those 4 things? What would happen is…

We would have more connecting relationships.

We would have less conflict.

We would live consciously.

We would engage in less negative self talk.

We would ask more questions.

We would no longer spiral with anxious thoughts and rumination would cease.

We would be more compassionate towards others.

We would be more compassionate towards self.

We would trust ourselves and other’s would be more likely to trust us.

We would be the best versions of ourselves/our highest selves.

We would be open and curious and attract more abundance.

We would be able to hold space for the people we love as well as humanity.

WE WOULD LEAD MORE AUTHENTIC LIVES, CREATE MORE FULFILLING RELATIONSHIPS, AND PROBABLY BE A HECK OF A LOT HAPPIER!

The fact of the matter is, that the longer I practice individual and couples therapy, the clearer and clearer it becomes that the two people in the relationship need to do their individual work in order for the relationship to reach its full potential. Self-awareness is necessary. HOWEVER, CHANGE HAPPENS VIA ACTION. Action steps are necessary.

ACTION STEPS: SLOW DOWN, OWN YOUR ROLE, REGULATE YOUR EMOTIONS and VALIDATE YOUR PARTNER!

Slow down during the conversation, take a time out if necessary (length of time predetermined, usually 30 minutes, try to keep it to the same day) until you are ready to resume the conversation leading with a STATEMENT OF ACCOUNTABILITY. What is a statement of accountability? When the two of you come back together to resolve the conflict, you both resume prepared to share what you identified as something YOU could have done differently to experience/contribute to a more positive outcome.

Example:

Partner 1: “I am sorry I did not call you when I realized I was going to be late. I know that makes you feel disrespected and taken for granted. I recognize that you probably would not have started yelling when I came home if I would have called you and kept you in the loop. Regardless of what the circumstances were around my inability to call, the fact of the matter is that I didn’t call and that upset you.”

Partner 2: “I really appreciate you saying that. I didn’t realize you understood what was happening for me and your apology matters. I also recognize that you have a lot going on at work and forgot to call. I know that you not calling is not indicative of you taking me for granted and at the time I took it personally. The fact that I was triggered is still no excuse for raising my voice and cursing. I apologize because you do not deserve to be spoken to that way and I could have handled that better. I take accountability for my role and triggering you. I apologize for my role in our conversation turning into an argument.

STOP BLAMING..START OWNING!

When two people enter in to a conversation taking accountability/owning their role and validating the other person’s emotions, it creates a safe environment for both of them. Emotional safety is necessary for transparent and vulnerable conversations to take place. You have to be willing to do your part and not get sucked into engaging in an unhealthy or maladaptive dynamic. “My partner made me do it,” means someone is struggling with seeing their part in an interaction.

When we begin to accept that we do things because WE DECIDE TO DO THEM, we can feel motivated and empowered to learn to respond to our triggers differently. You hold the key!

When we get triggered we tend to say things to hurt the other person, or we say things to protect ourselves. The bottom line is that we say things that may not be our truth. If YOU are reactive, that’s a YOU THING! We do not get to blame the other person for our choice of reaction and inability to self-soothe/regulate our emotions . We can respond differently, we can respond respectfully, and we can respond from a place of love once we learn how to manage our responses. You get to learn how to hold yourself accountable in your relationship!

I want to be clear that this does not mean that you do not show up for/support one another. I do believe that if you decide to be in a committed relationship, you get to both be clear around what you need/want support to look like for your unique relationship. Also, under no circumstances should a person stay in a relationship that is abusive. If you believe you are in a physically or emotionally abusive relationship, I encourage you to get immediate support. A client of mine has the mantra, “I can conquer anything with communication” – DF. You can indeed conquer anything with communication, just be sure to speak your truth with warmth and own your role when you do! When we come from a non-judgmental place, when we own our role, and when we lead with love, there is nothing we can not discuss. The goal is to be able to create an emotionally safe and authentic relationship. It starts with self. Remember, inner peace can not come from your partner, it comes from within and is the determinant of creating peace within your relationship!

Wishing you and your relationship love and peace always,

Tamara