How to Improve Communication and Closeness

Is it all about tone?

Posted Oct 09, 2019

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It’s a common complaint in relationships—the “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it” argument. Whether among parent and teen, boss and employee, or spouse and spouse, tone of voice matters, and can make or break how a request or statement is perceived.

In fact, a recent study published last month in the journal Developmental Psychology examined how 1000 adolescents responded to tone of voice when receiving instructions from their mothers (Weinstein et al., 2019). Results showed that teens were significantly more likely to engage with instructions (e.g. “You will read this book tonight”) that conveyed a sense of encouragement and support for autonomy, as opposed to those that were domineering or even neutral—even when the exact same words were used.

Ok—so maybe I’m stating the obvious here: that a kind tone of voice can be more effective than a controlling one. But, in the heat of the moment, our emotions can override our ability to maintain a calm and collected sound. Furthermore, tone of voice can seem like such a minute detail in the larger scheme of the relationship.

However, the study’s researchers found that tone of voice was not, in fact, so insignificant. Teens tended to report less interpersonal closeness to their mothers after hearing controlling tones and more interpersonal closeness after autonomy-supportive tones. Although these findings emerged in the context of a simulated environment, the authors suggested that “the effects would be even more robust in the context of meaningful, live, interpersonal interaction.”

We can apply these findings to romantic relationships, too. In fact, I’m reminded of what Dr. John Gottman—renowned couples therapist and researcher—calls the “soft start-up.” That is, try starting conversations by gently making your case, instead of with harsh criticisms or attacks (which he says will leave you with at least as much tension as you began with; see my post on how these can sabotage your relationship here).

For example, instead of:

“Ugh—I can’t believe you’re late again! You’re so inconsiderate you can’t even be bothered to call and let me know!”

Try the softer-start up:

“I thought we agreed you’d call when you’re running late. I was waiting for you and getting really worried.”

You may read this and think it sounds easier said than done, or feel skeptical about its effectiveness. Perhaps you’ve tried the supportive tone and soft start-up strategies, and you’re still met with negativity. In these cases, Julie Gottman suggests saying something like, “I’m really not trying to criticize you or put you down—I care about you and want to be closer to you.”

Again, it boils down to interpersonal closeness. Because that’s what most of us want (even when we run from it, or fight it, or are scared of it for a number of—often legitimate—reasons): to be securely attached and close to important people in our lives. And one way to foster this is through mindful, supportive communication. 

References

Weinstein, N., Vansteenkiste, M., & Paulmann, S. (2019, September 26). Listen to Your Mother: Motivating Tones of Voice Predict Adolescents’ Reactions to Mothers. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/dev0000827

Lisitsa, E. (2013). How to fight smarter: Soften your start-up. Retrieved from: https://www.gottman.com/blog/softening-startup/

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