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Setting the Tone and Strengthening Relationships

April 30, 2018

I've been reading psychologist Rick Hanson's weekly newsletters for years, but this week's post on trying a softer tone really resonated with me. You see, I'm a naturally soft spoken person. Since I was a young child, I've been very sensitive -- probably more than many people -- to how people speak to me. That includes the positive or negative charge of the words that people use, as well as the tone they take in delivering those words. When people raise their voices to me in anger or irritation, or when they take a biting, harsh tone, I feel assaulted. So, for me, getting yelled at is akin to getting hit.


Tone is more than what we say

How I experience being scolded is consistent with how linguists have analyzed communication. As Rick Hanson points out in his post, it's not the explicit content that matters as much as the emotional subtext and the implicit statements -- in other words, the tone of the communication. Tone not only includes the volume of our voice, but also our facial expression and body language. And when you're in a relationship with someone you care deeply about -- a parent, a child, a spouse, or a dear friend -- their expression of disgust or disappointment that's directed at you with something like an eye-roll or a sneer can cut to the quick.


Maya Angelou, one of my favorite poets, essayists, and wise women, famously said that "people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." That observation rings particularly true when you consider not only isolated situations with people, but when we have sustained interactions with important people in our lives.


Tone accumulates over time

Relationship researcher John Gottman has studied thousands of couples since the 1970's, and has concluded that the marriages that sustain and succeed over time are those where there's a ratio of five positive interactions to one negative interaction. That suggests that it's the overall tone of how we relate to one another that predicts how we feel about each other.


So, how does tone factor into our relationship with our children?


Let's take the classic example of how many of us try to get our kids to clean up after themselves:


"Look at this room! It's a pig sty! How can you live in this mess? You're never going to be able to go away to college because no one wants a slob as a roommate." 


Sound vaguely familiar? I must admit that I am guilty of outbursts like this in raising my own child. My husband has joked that my "evil twin sister" takes over when I become an out of control shrew (I have no sisters, evil or otherwise).


As you might have guessed, this approach has not worked for me. It never did in getting my son to clean up after himself. And every time I lose it, I feel awful, I regret things I have said, and my relationship with my son or husband becomes strained. It's a lose-lose situation all around.


Believe it or not, there is are more positive ways to communicate in these situations. And when you use a softer tone with children and those close to you, you will undoubtedly notice smoother interactions with them, greater cooperation, and strengthened relationships.



Trying to soften our tone

Here are some helpful suggestions for a taking a softer tone with our children and teens (adapted from Rick Hanson):


1. Notice your tone. This requires us to be conscious of what we are saying and how we are saying it. It's easy to be quick to scold, blame, shame, or criticize when our buttons are pushed, when we are tired, or overwhelmed. For many of us, we grew up in homes where voices were raised on a daily basis as a matter of course. If this was the norm for you, that type of communication may have become a knee-jerk reaction for you. So, the first step is to hear yourself. .


2. Reflect on your intention. I have always found wisdom in the Buddha-inspired guidance, "Before you speak, ask yourself if what you are going to say is true, is it necessary, and is it kind." When we say something to our kids, for example asking them to do something, or correcting their behavior, we should be considering our true purposes. If we truly want to gain their cooperation or teach them to behave more appropriately in the future, it is best not to criticize or scold, but consider how you might be helpful and kind. 


3. Empathize. Think about how your words and your tone will be received. How would you want to be spoken to? What might it be like to be a child who doesn't know how get organized, or doesn't care about keeping their room clean? How might you be helpful, and not hurtful?


4. Control yourself. As angry or irritated as we may feel, we can control how we express it. To get control of ourselves, first we may need to stop and take a few deep breaths. This will allow us to relax the muscles in our face and body, which will help us feel calmer and gain perspective on what's really going on, and what we are feeling underneath our anger.


When we choose a softer tone, we prevent the harmful effects to ourselves and our children, in the immediate situation and over time. When we express our anger by raising our voices -- or by being  yelled at -- our stress hormones are released and we can get stuck in, or escalate, a cycle of fear and anxiety. As Hanson reminds us, the Buddha said that getting angry with others is like throwing hot coals with bare hands -- both people get burned.


This is not to say that we shouldn't allow ourselves to get angry, frustrated, or irritated. On the contrary, as my teacher Tal Ben-Shahar argues, we need to give ourselves permission to be human by experiencing a full range of emotions, including the painful ones, and letting them flow through us so they become less intense and eventually dissipate. 


5. Choose your words. The point is that we need to express our anger in healthy ways. We can say, for example, "When I see the mess in your room, I feel really irritated, and disrespected. We all share this space and I feel unsettled when it's not clean and neat." And we should be careful to hold back from blaming, shaming, exaggerating, name-calling, swearing, accusing, and making discouraging statements. Instead of inflaming the situation by using words like "never," we should be supporting the notion that we all can do better next time if we are conscious of our mistakes and learn from them.


Setting the tone

Thankfully, the tone I tried to set in our house, despite the occasional appearance of my "evil twin sister," was a positive one, and the ratio of loving and happy interactions outweighed the tense and toxic ones.


So, at the end of the day, we all should be more mindful of our tone, and do the best we can to soften it. And send our evil twins on an extended vacation in a distant land.


How might parents and teachers build and sustain positive relationships with their children and students by "softening" their tone? How might we increase the ratio of positive to negative interactions with the ones we most care about and spend the most time with?


Angela will weigh in on this issue from the educator perspective. Stay tuned.


Join our conversation by subscribing to our email list, engaging with our compassionate classrooms community on Facebook, and on Twitter @EllenFeigGray and @AngelaStockman.




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