Don’t Be Tone Deaf

As a professional therapist, I realize that a lot of people’s stress in life stems from an inability to assertively express themselves. Therefore, I end up teaching a good amount of effective communication skills. Still, the truth is that I can teach all the technical skills in the world and all that doesn’t mean squat if your tone and body language don’t match it.


There’s truth to the old adage, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it that counts the most.”


Let’s say someone relapses on drugs or alcohol and admits this to me in my office. In response to this I say, “What were you thinking?!” and my tone is judgmental and aggressive. Are they going to want to tell me truly and honestly what they were thinking at that time? Probably not.


Likely what’s happening are two things:


  1. I’m judging and assuming that person should know better or should have done differently.


  1. I’m taking it personally and projecting my frustration of feeling as though I failed them as a counselor, rather than seeking it as a learning experience or as an opportunity to better reach this client.


But, what if instead I said, “Okay, I appreciate your courage and honesty in telling me that; I’m just curious, what were you thinking at that moment?” Here, my tone is non-judgmental, and therefore the message is received as non-threatening; just that I care and I’m concerned. Same question, only in this case, it’s likely I’ll get a much more honest response.


According to studies done by Albert Mehrabian, 93% of what we say comes from our body language and our tone (55% fascial feeling, 38% vocal feeling) and only 7% comes from the words we speak. (This study is often misquoted; however, it does demonstrate the importance of body language and tone as perhaps even more important than word choice.)75


According to body language expert, Ryan West…


It’s not what you say that matters most – it’s how you react. It’s your openness, it’s how well you listen. It’s how you stay solution focused. It’s how you compromise, etc.


Think of the line, “help me understand.” I imagine the first person who said this may have had good intentions. Said with a kind tone, it’s a great phrase to elicit greater understanding. However, with the wrong tone, “help me understand,” becomes “I’m doubting everything you’re doing, it’s wrong, and you need to justify yourself and your actions to me.”


It’s not always easy to communicate assertively, but being able to do so will help you be perceived more positively by others, improve your relationships, increase your professional achievement, and reduce stress in your life. Being more aware of your communication strategies and practicing assertive communication skills are vital to having well-rounded Mental Fitness.

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