It’s All About Tone

Over the past week I have again been struck by the sad state of political discourse, both on the international and local stage – from nonsensical Twitter posts to stinging, personal attacks on political opponents and shallow one-liners aimed at a media headline. Courageous, gracious, non-judgemental, kind and hope-inspiring political speeches are a rarity these days.

As I pondered this sad state of affairs, two things happened in the space of a few minutes that reminded me afresh of the power of our words and even more, the way we speak them.

Having just heard on the TV news a local MP trying to score cheap political points attacking an opponent, an advertisement appeared for a documentary on Martin Luther King Jnr, as the world marks the 50th anniversary of his death this month. What a contrast.

King Jnr, like the King whose gospel agenda drove his life, clearly understood the power of language – how words can build – be it a nation or a child living with racism and wondering whether it would ever change.

A few minutes later my wife asked me a simple question. I quickly answered her. But immediately I could see in the way she looked at me, that while what I had said wasn’t unhelpful or hurtful, the way I said it was.

It was all about my tone! So often, it’s all about our tone!


The Truth of Tone

As Dr Alex Lickerman writes:

“Whatever the content of the things we say, it’s our tone that communicates what we’re feeling when we say them. Our tone tells the truth even when our words don’t, even when we’re unaware of that truth ourselves. And it’s our tone to which others respond.”

This is so, so true. When one of my little kids says ‘sorry’ for something they have done wrong, I know if they mean it by their tone, by the way they speak that important word, by their eye contact and their body language.

With vulnerability, Dr Lickerman highlights how tone impacts everyday conversations. He writes:

“Several weeks ago, I was editing some video footage for a home movie and was surprised to discover how irritated, negative, and just plain mean I sounded when talking to my wife. I remember most of the interactions that were filmed but not any of the feelings I was quite clearly projecting.

Watching the movie back and hearing myself was a humbling experience, to say the least. Ironically, I’d been wondering why my wife and I seemed not to be enjoying one another’s company as much recently. The video gave me the answer. The cause was me! I needed to stop and look again at my tone and more, what was brewing deep down inside that made me speak and react the way I was.”

I am sure we can all relate to Lickerman’s experience and he points us to a key Biblical truth.

Ultimately, it all comes down to grace. Tone and grace go hand in hand.


Tone and Grace

Do our words and tone reflect grace? Do they reflect a generosity of spirit, are they non-judgemental, are they aimed at building up, rather than pulling down? What comes out of my mouth and the tone that goes with it, reflects the deeper things of my heart.

Jesus, who for me best reflects what gracious tone looks and sounds like, said:

Good people bring good things out of the good they store in their hearts. But evil people bring evil things out of the evil they store in their hearts. People speak the things that are in their hearts.”

John Piper writes:

“A critical heart produces a critical tongue. A self-righteous heart produces a judgmental tongue. A bitter heart produces an acerbic tongue. An ungrateful heart produces a grumbling tongue. But a loving heart produces a gracious tongue. A faithful heart produces a truthful tongue. A peaceful heart produces a reconciling tongue. A trusting heart produces an encouraging tongue. The words you speak will all depend on what’s filling your heart.”

While we are reflecting on our words and tone, let’s remind ourselves that in a literate, digital society, the challenge of tone applies equally to our written words. Email is a great communication tool, but a poorly written email, typed with haste and no care, may be just as destructive as a verbal attack.

Generosity of Spirit – at Work and Home

I’m privileged to work with Dale Stephenson, our Senior Pastor at Crossway, and Dale regularly reminds our team of the importance of tone. Be it a brief conversation with a colleague in the foyer, words we speak in a team setting or our non-verbal cues in a meeting, we are mindful that tone impacts relationships, community and ultimately organisational culture. It’s one of the reasons that “Generosity of Spirit” is one of our staff core values.

And what’s true in the workplace has even higher stakes on the home-front.

The ancient writer of Proverbs penned: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue”. I sense the writer had a good appreciation that this included tone, even if it wasn’t in the vocabulary of the day.

Today, with the words I speak to my wife and children, and with the way I speak them, I will either build up or pull down. There is no sitting on the fence. And day by day, words and tone – as simple as they can seem – shape life legacy.


Shaped by Grace

Here’s the challenging thought that has been on my mind this week. What if like Dr Lickerman’s experience I had a camera on me all this past week. What would it have said about my interactions, conversations, words and tone? More so, what would it have said about the things that are brewing in my heart and soul?

When someone speaks to you in a tone that is not helpful, remember it is reflecting something deeper going on in their life. Show them some grace. So often we need it returned to us. And remember that when others find it hard to get along with you, it just may be, as Lickerman found, that the issue starts with you!

That’s humbling I know, but the older I get, the more I see the need to face up to my own human frailties and seek to allow the Holy Spirit to keep shaping me more into the person he wants me to be – a person of grace – a person who speaks, acts and loves more like Jesus.

Today we have the opportunity to take stock of our tongue and tone and be reminded of the powerful difference they make in building healthy, encouraging relationships and growing community.

Scott Pilgrim