From Tone Deaf to Perfect Pitch: Striking a Balance

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Author: Aubrey K. Wiete, M.A. | Source: HCI | Published: June 8, 2015

As outdated performance review processes continue to be scrutinized, a broader discussion around effective feedback is also growing. Namely, how does the way a person communicates influence how they - and their message – are perceived?

I distinctly remember the first time I started to understand the power and significance of tone when I was 10.  In Mr. Grady’s fifth grade class, we were assigned to write a letter to a company whose products we used and enjoyed. This was during the hype of mini M&M’s that were packaged in cute little cylindrical containers that dually functioned as maracas in music class. So, naturally, my letter was addressed to Mars Inc.

I am the daughter of an English teacher, and at that point in my life was more precocious and loquacious than I care to admit, and my letter reflected that. I’m confident I came across more like a 40-year old housewife and baker than a gangly, gap-toothed kid. I wrote that I “adore the little chocolate mini M&M’s and find them the perfect size to add to cookies and desserts” and that “their colors give every dish a bit more pizzazz than conventional chocolate chips.”

Our class waited with bated breath, and 6-8 weeks later, we started getting mail. The majority of my classmates received polite responses thanking them for their interest and positive feedback. The letter addressed to me was a bit different, though. While it acknowledged my appreciation, also included were coupons for two free bags of mini M&M’s that “we hope you will enjoy as you continue to use our products in your baked goods and tasty treats.” Needless to say, I was both thrilled and surprised by this turn of events, and struck by the fact that how people communicate is every bit as important as what they are saying.

Of course, this is true on the opposite end of the spectrum as well. Giving positive feedback with the right language is important, but how you deliver negative feedback is equally, if not more, crucial. I learned this lesson the hard way after implementing a series of campaigns to call companies out on bad customer service and poor experiences with angry letters. I spent hours channeling my rage and disappointment, only to be met with form letters and little, if any, restitution for my troubles. And then I realized again the necessity of balancing the information and the inflection; building your argument on a foundation of mutual respect.

Maya Angelou said “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Understanding and harnessing the power of tone is essential in this regard; it is the emphasis of the message that people remember, not the specific words you might have used. And collectively, those messages build your brand.

Fast-forward to the present where I just received some bad news that a national NPR correspondent is unable to present on a webcast on unconscious bias. Upsetting as it is that I wasn’t able to secure my first pick for a presenter, I am more struck by the tone of the message I received – an honest, personal response from a national correspondent, researcher, and author who I am certain gets bombarded with invitations like this every week. That he took the time to craft a message explaining his regret at having to turn down my offer both cushions the blow, and speaks volumes about his character.  

In the same way you are what you eat internally, externally you are perceived and defined by the tone you project. The most effective communication is both honest and intentional – no matter the message at hand.