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Check Your Tone

February 1, 2018


And what I mean by check your tone is this: Pay attention to the tone you use when recounting a story, especially when recounting an interaction with someone else, as more often than not we project our own interpretations of tone onto the dynamic.


For example, I recently spoke with a client experiencing frustration with a spouse. In session, my client played out the dialogue from both sides of the argument. In that dialogue, they, the client, often came out as calm and rational, while the spouse's voice is like that of a nagging shrew.


There's several reasons why we do this:


1. We may have heard things from a negative/threatened perspective


This happens a lot in couples counseling. For example, a spouse who feels emasculated or intimidated might interpret things that their spouses says as threatening or demeaning when, in fact, they were anything but. This happens more often than people care to admit. "We hear what we want to hear" is a somewhat valid point. We interpret the verbal and non-verbal queues of others based on our own past experiences that then influence our current interactions.


2. We use this interpretation of tone to justify our own reactions


If we project this tyrannical tone onto the "other" then it completely justifies an aggressive response on our end. So, in other words, if our spouse was calm and rational and it was we who flew off the handle, well then we just look ridiculous for being so angry and that emotion deflates our argument. But, if we project that tyrannical tone onto them, in the retelling of the interaction, then our actions are completely justified and our argument is bolstered.


3. We do it to "hype" ourselves up


What another therapist refers to as the "hype man." If we project a demeaning, demanding, or nagging tone  during a recent interaction that was bothersome then it hypes us up, makes us feel more aggressive, more in control, and more ready to stand up to those demands.  Ever play out a scene in your head and get pumped up for the next time "someone says something"?


What it really does is causes us to blow up at that person at the slightest provocation. This often leaves the other person confused and wondering where all that anger came from.


4. We do it to vent frustration


Sometimes, the other will say or do something that frustrates us and by projecting a nagging tone we can vent our frustration as sarcasm. However, it's a double-edged sword. While sarcasm is often useful in venting frustration it is also possible that it simply reinforces frustration. Rather than dealing with what is and communicating in a healthy manner, we end up painting a negative picture of the other person in our minds and reinforcing the image of the "nag" or "tyrant."


5. We do it as a form of self-comfort


Ever talk to yourself? Ever play out a recent dialogue out loud? We do this, adding in tone and non-verbal queues like we're performing on stage, as a form of self-soothing. We can play out the dynamic in a safe way while trying to figure out what happened.


This isn't necessarily such a bad thing as long as the goal is focused on figuring out the problem and solving it and not feeding the "hype man."


So recently, in sessions where I see this happening, I have been saying things like "Wow, your spouse sounds like a tyrant!" Usually upon hearing this, a client will recognize their error and say "Wait, my spouse doesn't sound like that! They don't nag me. They're actually quite calm." Then, in future sessions, they will typically have the self-awareness to catch themselves when they are playing out this dynamic again.


Does anyone else notice themselves doing this? What does your interpreted tone sound like? Do you experience nagging, demeaning, or demanding tones?




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