I found a pattern for a beautiful quilt. It has six colourful giraffes, all of different heights, standing in a row. I loved the idea of the giraffes, reminding me of our first trip to Kenya, where we were simply stunned by their beauty, grace and size. I also loved the bright colours. Although at first glance I had no idea how detailed the pattern was, after taking a good look at it, and then taking a few deep breaths, I know it will be a great challenge for me.
Walking into a quilt shop can be overwhelming. Surrounded by thousands of bolts of every possible type, colour, hue, print, texture and tone of fabric, it’s a formidable task figuring out where to begin. I knew I needed a light and dark version of six different colours, so I got to work using that as my beginning step.
As I selected a light and dark red, a light and dark orange, a light and dark purple, the bolts became too cumbersome to lug around so I found a small table, just waiting for me to lay out my fabrics. Carrying on I found my yellows, blues and greens. While I had a nice contrast in each of the colours, when I lay them side by side, something felt off. Each pair was fine on its own, but together something was not right. My brain was working far too hard. Our brains like to make sense of things. When things are ‘right’, our brains can relax. There is no puzzle to solve. But when something is off, our brains kick into high gear. My brain was working far too hard.
I’ve looked at enough fabric and colours over time to know that one effective little trick is to walk away for a few minutes, then come back and take a fresh look. Often the problem will immediately reveal itself. My little trick did not fail me this time. After a quick sweep of the store, returning to the table I could see the problem. It was the blues. The light and dark colours looked good together, but their tone did not compliment the others. Had I used it, it may have ended up looking ok, but I know each time I looked at it, my brain would not be able to just relax and enjoy the whole image; it would be busily trying to ‘solve’ something. It would not have been communicating the feeling I was hoping to achieve.
Tone is a critical part of communication. The most inspiring words can be completely lost when the tone used to deliver them is ‘off’. As thought there is a disconnect between what is heard, and what is felt or sensed, the listener is unable to focus on the message when their brain is busy tryng to sort out what to focus on, the words or the tone.
Tone most often wins.
The same day I made my fabric purchase, Jim and I watched the American Presidential Debate. I’m sure there were some excellent facts each candidate had rehearsed in preparation. I’m sure they had practiced their responses to the questions in great detail. Sadly, I can’t recall any of the facts, or the details or statistics. I can only recall the tone of the entire debacle; the tone of intolerance, condescension, arrogance and disdain.
Still, this embarrassment of a debate comes as a gift to the rest of us. What a perfect reminder of the power of our tone. Most of us navigate the conversations in our lives on our own. We don’t have speech writers. We don’t have staff on whom we can practice our comments and our responses. We don’t have test audiences to check how our comments will land. What we do now have is the understanding of how important it is for us to consider carefully, perhaps even more carefully than we choose our words, our tone.
So often when we have something important to say, we spend a significant amount of time considering our words. We choose each word carefully, wanting to convey just the perfect message. Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we are left wondering what went wrong. When we are the listener, often when we hear a moving speech or answer or comment, we are more moved by the tone than the words. We’ve all heard people say, I didn’t think about my words, I just spoke from my heart. These moments almost always resonate. It turns out it is a lot easier to forgive a misspoken word, when we clearly hear the intent through the tone.
When our words and tone are out of alignment, the listener has to engage their problem-solving brain to figure out which thing is true. Are the words true or is the tone true? The brain can always figure out when one of these is off; when the blues don’t quite go with the yellows, oranges, greens, purples and reds. Since tone links to feelings, and since feelings guide us, if the tone is off, the speaker will never accurately communicate their message.
We all have important-to-us things we want to say, and to have others hear. I’m wondering what would happen if, as we prepared to speak, we spent longer figuring out the tone we want to convey with our message, the feeling we want to impart, and less time worrying about our perfect vocabulary. I’m guessing we’d end up with a few nicer quilts in our lives.
My inquiry for you this week is, ‘How’s my tone?’
Elizabeth is a certified professional Leadership Coach, and the owner of Critchley Coaching. She is the founder and president of the Canadian charity, RDL Building Hope Society. She works with corporations, non-profits and the public sector, providing leadership coaching. She creates and facilitates custom workshops for all sizes of groups. She has particular expertise in facilitating Strategic Plans for organizations. Contact Elizabeth to learn how to recognize the power of your tone.