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