Language Matters. But not as much as Tone.


Take the word “Oh”. Say it out loud in the following ways:

  • Like you just found out that your best friend’s husband is having an affair
  • Like you just found out your mother has been diagnosed with cancer
  • Like you just found $100 in a forgotten jacket pocket
  • Like you just finally understood a concept after misunderstanding it in previous explanations

Likely, those expressions of the word “Oh” were different from one another. Maybe there were distinct facial expressions or gestures that went with each one. Perhaps you sucked in your breath before saying one or two of them.

Most of us indicate the real meaning behind our words with tone, emphasis, body language, and facial expressions. When my kids have done something wrong, I never ask them to apologize. The reason is that every time I did that when they were younger, what I got was a flat, mechanical, “I’m sorry” that had only one meaning behind it—“I’m not at all sorry right now but my mom is making me say this to you, so here’s all you’re going to get from me. Sorry-not-sorry about your luck.”

Bring it into your work space. Does email ever get misinterpreted? When someone asks another member of the team to do something, is it the words you pay most attention to? Or is it the tone of voice they use?

We’ll be talking about how to increase employee engagement this month, and starting with thinking about how we are heard by others is at the top of our list of the quickest ways we either engage one another, or shut one another down.

When we are in the arena with the horses, tone, body language, and intuition are the ONLY things they “hear”. They have an amazing ability to ferret through all of our layers and hone in on our true intentions. If those intentions make them nervous, they’ll shy away and be uncooperative. Don’t our colleagues and employees respond in much the same way?

Where are your examples of this? How have you experienced someone’s tone having a bigger impact on you than their words? What did you do about it? We’d love to hear!

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