How many times have you been talking to someone, you’ve disliked the tone they’ve used, and it’s sparked a row? Or perhaps someone has told you not to talk to them in ‘that tone of voice’. It’s happened to all of us at some point in our lives, and more often than not, we don’t realise how we’re coming across as we speak.

There’s one aspect of communication I love discussing with the kids I coach, and by default, their parents, which is, ‘how someone reacts is exactly how you have been heard’. Interestingly, when challenged, a person will often say, “I didn’t mean it like that”.

That’s tone of voice playing a big part in miscommunication!

Think back to those times as a parent when you’ve told your children to clean their rooms, and they’ve pushed back, refusing to negotiate. “I’ll do it later”, comes the belligerent reply, or they’ve studiously ignored your request altogether—seriously, it’s enough to drive you completely nuts!

These interactions might then lead to arguments where you either give up or resort to what we’ve all done; threats and follow-through of something being taken away, exacerbating the problem.

Before becoming a Communications Coach, I had issues with my tone of voice, where my kids constantly pushed back every time I asked them to do something. However, it wasn’t until 2016, when I started working with kids and introduced role-play in my classes, that I realised how much our tone of voice provokes negative responses from our children. Consequently, heightening our own stress when the situation appears to take a downhill turn. It’s frustrating and downright annoying when harmony in the house is disrupted by what we think of as a simple request.

Often kids don’t realise or appreciate that parents are busy—I know that when I was a child, I didn’t care either. Now, due to the pandemic, most of us are having to work from home, look for a new job, or run a business, as well as being a parent with little or no break, and let’s be honest, those six hours at school does give us a little breather from direct parenting!

We’re busting our chops overseeing our children’s online schooling, running the house, and managing all our parental duties, while attempting to keep a smile on our face to encourage our kids to see it’s not all doom and gloom. Life sometimes feels hectic and difficult; any arguments that happen at home make us feel as though we’re not coping, and occasionally as if we’re failing in some way.

Incidentally, there’s no failure. We’re just trying to keep up with changes by adapting our lives to accommodate our daily circumstances—as parents, we really do need to be kinder to ourselves! That said, we can actively help keep the atmosphere at home a little more harmonious.

Recently, when working with a family on their communication style. It was established that arguments could kick-off at the drop of a hat between the eldest child, a 10-year-old and his parents over trivia. We discussed the way they speak to each other, and unsurprisingly, the bulk of what appears to be the problem is the tone of voice each uses when engaging with one another.

Of course, the content of what is said is important. However, you can say the same thing in a few different ways, and the response you get from the listener will vary accordingly, just as you will discover in Exercise One below.

I gave the family homework to do over the course of the week, which was to adapt their vocal tone as they spoke to each other. Softening the sound, rather than barking out orders or making demands. I asked them to be mindful of their tone when speaking, not to use a sing-song voice, which can grate on the nerves—kids love the sing-song voice!

When I caught up with them the following week, mum and son reported fewer arguments. According to mum, her son was able to modify his behaviour when he became aware of how he was speaking. She said she felt a lot more harmony in the house. Both she and her husband have proactively changed their own tone to encourage their younger children to mimic their behaviour (positive mimicking) and their eldest to become proactive in his own change. She’s thrilled by how quickly they’ve all adapted.

When I chatted with the son, he expressed pride in himself, loving that he didn’t get into trouble all week. I could see the ‘win’ in his eyes as they beamed at me as he grinned like the Cheshire cat.

I reinforced that the exercises were to be ongoing. They shouldn’t be done for a week then put aside since change is created by rewiring our brain to formulate new healthy habits as we break old self-defeating behaviours.

As a Coach, when I chat to the kids and their parents about how we can positively change the dynamic at home by actively changing the tone of our voice, they are at first sceptical. Until they do some of the exercises I set. A few days later, I’ll have a parent call or approach me in class and tell me that it’s as if a lightbulb switched on as they realised that making the change isn’t as hard as they first believed. They tell me that once they discover the benefits, they choose not to revert to old behaviours. Score!

So, how can something as simple as vocal tone change behaviours that have developed over the years? Try the exercises below to get an idea.

Exercise One (Adult)

Try saying something that would be taken as nasty and say it in three different ways – not to someone else, unless they’re happy to be your guinea pig to give you feedback! We don’t want to cause any arguments while you hear the difference in your tone.

If you don’t have someone to work with you, look in a mirror, so you can see how your facial expressions will also affect your tone of voice.

Say these words: “You are an idiot!”

The first time you say it, keep your voice staccato and aggressive, emphasising each word, even allowing your top lip to curl a bit to create a snarl in your tone as if you’re angry. Or say “You. Are. An. Idiot!” through gritted teeth – even try both, but it should feel harsh, unkind and judgemental. The likely response you would get from someone will be an immediate downward mood shift, and undoubtedly an argument would follow.

Now say the same words in a slightly higher tone, with your eyebrows drawn together, without being staccato, as if you’re astounded by such stupidity. It should feel as though you’re patronising the person. Again, the response would likely be of frustration or anger.

Finally, use the words with a genuine smile on your face, which will automatically lift your voice to sound more friendly; a light-hearted quiver naturally adds good humour to your tone – it should feel playful and not as though you’re unkind. The response would be unlikely to be combative since your tone isn’t judgemental or demeaning.

Evaluate how each sounded. How would you respond if you were on the receiving end? Be honest about how each way made you feel.

Exercise Two (Parent/Carer and Child)

Go and get your child and ask them to play along with you—kids do enjoy a good roleplay!

Say the child’s name at the beginning of the request. Try and do this as close to your normal tone as possible. If you don’t, you won’t get a real feel for the change.

  • … go and clean your room now – in an impatient tone.
  • … go and clean your room now – in your normal tone.
  • … go and clean your room now, please – in your normal tone.
  • … go and clean your room now, please – in a softer tone dropping your voice to be firm but gentle.

Watch your child’s reaction as you speak. Each time you’ve done one ask if they liked the tone you used – add in any other tones you can think of as you role play. Please encourage them to tell you how it made them feel without judgement or reprisal for their honesty.

When you’ve finished the exercise, question which way of asking would less likely result in push back and which would be more likely to have them say, “Okay can I do it…” they might ask for 10 more minutes to finish a game, opening the floor to negotiation rather than friction.

Exercise Three (Parent/Carer and Child)

Just as with the above, ask your child to say the following:

  • … when’s dinner ready? – in an impatient tone. Their voice should be demanding.
  • … when’s dinner ready? – in their normal tone.
  • … excuse me, can I ask a question… when’s dinner ready? – in their normal tone. We don’t care about grammar at this point; we want to inject words that feel politer.
  • … excuse me, can I ask a question please… when’s dinner ready? – in a softer tone, just like you did before, ask them to drop their voice to be gentler and politer.

Once you’ve done this, explain how you felt with each request. Chat about why you responded in the way you have, letting them know which way would produce a more positive outcome from you.

I’ve found that when kids and parents actively role play to iron out frustrating habits, children respond well, purely because kids often need to ‘see’, ‘hear’ and ‘feel’ the effects by expressing themselves through talk. They feel less dismissed as an ‘annoyance’. Using short, sharp, impatient, offhand responses makes them feel undervalued—I’ve been guilty of doing exactly that in the past.

Parents have told me they feel less harassed by their kids when they’ve adjusted their way of asking for something. They feel more respected by a simple, ‘please’, ‘thank you’, or ‘excuse me’. They also find that when they soften their own tone with their kids, they feel less nagged, opening the floor to healthy negotiation. Parents have found that the use of threats significantly drops, which in turn reduces their stress.

Life is way too short to be constantly arguing with the people you love, so give the above exercises a go and see if you can add more harmony to your home.

Samantha Richards is a Public Speaking and Communications Consultant and founder of ‘Building Voices Communication’. She is an award-winning public speaker who is the top female public speaking coach in Australia (Yahoo Finance). She is currently studying for a Diploma in Counselling and is passionate about helping others communicate confidently. 

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