My experiences in working with both large and small organisations have produced some common themes when it comes to seemingly small catalysts that can produce bigger and ongoing issues. Tone of voice is without doubt one of these seemingly small catalysts.

It’s not what you say, but how you say it.

Why tone and assumptions matter

The majority of the literature tells us that 80% of communication is non-verbal. This is often interpreted as body language and non-verbal gestures (nodding, for example). I would go further to say that tone plays a significant role in this 80%.

Consider this example:

Anne walks into Bill’s office on Monday morning to ask a question that she needs answered. Bill answers with “Do whatever you think is best”.

The words might be fine. They may in fact empower Anne and show her that Bill has trust in her. But the tone experienced by Anne is one that she would describe as abrupt and dismissive.

This brief encounter might not go any further. Or this encounter may start the ball rolling for a series of assumptions and reactions by each person in their future conversations. Anne might decide that Bill couldn’t be bothered with her and decide to approach him less often. Bill might assume that Anne thinks she is too good to be managed and is undermining him by not keeping him informed and collaborating. Their conversations might become short and curt and their levels of respect for and trust in one another may diminish. The broader team might start to sense the tension and talk about it, or they might begin to avoid one or both of them. It may polarize the team and see individuals take sides. Management, morale and productivity may suffer.

But let’s back track.

If you are Bill on that particular morning you may have been caught in traffic, or you might have had a terrible weekend that involved a family feud. You might have arrived at the office to find an urgent email that has caused you to feel stressed and overwhelmed. Your reply to Anne when she came in may have been intended to delegate responsibility and create some time to deal with your urgent email.

If you are aware of the mood that you bring into the office, you can make a conscious effort not to let it affect your tone. Or if it does, you could acknowledge it and explain the reason. This would build trust and rapport, rather than annihilate it.

If you are Anne, you have probably made a number of assumptions about why Bill has used this tone. In turn the actions that you take generate a series of further assumptions about the other person and their motives. As time passes, Bill is also making assumptions. Both people have jumped into a spiral.

Assumptions, like certain tones, are dangerous. However, Anne and Bill could both challenge the assumptions that they are making and ask themselves:

Why am I assuming this?
What else is possible?

Either person could take a step towards “unspiralling” by approaching the other person. For example, Anne might say, “Bill, I noticed that you seemed tense before”. She might ask “What’s going on?” or “What can I do to help out?”

This kind of interaction could change everything.

The takeaway message here is an important one for any working relationship (or any relationship for that matter).

You cannot control or change the behaviours of another person, but you do have a choice as to how you react.

Question your assumptions and be aware of the way that you deliver your message. Build good relationships through open communication and self-awareness.