Are you tone-deaf in your place of work? Do you miss cues when people make a snide remark? Or, are you dismissive, insensitive, or judgmental in tone with your verbal comments that would seem benign on paper but have real bite when said? Do you say things to people in a tone that would make them take offence, become defensive, or do you side step difficult conversations with remarks that are heavy in tone? Are you the target of someone who only speaks in tones? Are you challenged in interpreting the real meaning of what your supervisor is saying in those offhanded or not so subtle comments?

Obviously I am taking the liberty of applying the name of a medical condition “tone deafness” or amusia (an inability to distinguish between musical notes) to a more universal platform and problem — a lack of attention or deficiency in emotional intelligence to manage when someone is using tone in language to make a point or convey an emotion. I think the phase draws a vivid picture, one we’ve all experienced.

So how do you test yourself for tone deafness in the workplace? It’s really a matter of self-observation and solicited feedback.

Let’s try something. Think of the simple reply “oh really.” Now try to say it in three different ways using phrasing, voice volume, and word emphasis. For example “oh really” meaning you are surprised by the information. How about the “oh really” you use when you hadn’t known something or gain clarification, and it wasn’t sitting particularly well with you. Then of course there is the more sarcastic version when your tone says, “I don’t believe a word you have said.” Same two words with dramatically different meanings and impact.

Most of us can decipher the more blatant use of these but what about when it’s more subtle, sophisticated, or underhanded? What about when you use tone to hurt, fluster, or avoid? The challenge — how do you use tone effectively, yet not maliciously?

Probably the easiest measure of tonal impact can be observed with body language. Even the smallest shift in posture or facial expression gives a hint. Under the best of circumstances these provide an opportunity to correct or adjust. “Wait a moment. I think I said that in a way I didn’t intend or possibly you took me the wrong way,” handles what could be a volatile situation promptly and allows everyone to move on. Unfortunately, there are times when an immediate take back isn’t realistic. When that’s the case, I make a point of approaching the person, generally in private, and as quickly as possible. If you find yourself having to do this often, then tone deafness just might be a problem needing your attention.

Another solution can be to solicit the feedback of a respected and supportive colleague. “Did I come across too _________,” when I questioned the validity of their assumption? A good friend will tell you, assuming they think you are receptive and truly interested in making a change. Sometimes a mentor or supervisor can play this role as well.

One remedy for tone deafness is critical listening. What I mean is not only listening to others but also hearing yourself. Ask, “What are other ways someone might have taken what I just said?” If you catch yourself manipulating your language often, that’s the time to question, “Why am I doing this?” For me it’s times of stress or when I think others are trying to take advantage of me. It also can be embarrassment or being ill at ease with a situation, so you blurt something out without the proper preparation. And don’t negate that some people can bring out the worst in all of us.

What about the other side of the coin — when you are the receiver of a toned-laced comment? I think a simple request is often the easiest and most effective. “Excuse me; I think I must have misunderstood what you said. Could I ask you to repeat it (or rephrase it)?” I’ve had moments when I thought the tone was downright mean. Then I generally say something like “ouch!” More often than not the person says they didn’t mean it as heard. Whether that’s true or not, it puts them on alert it is not acceptable. Of course, there are times when people’s intentions are strictly to hurt, demean, or exercise power. Then you have to pick your time, person, and shot. I always had a hard time holding my tongue, but that said I would consider the politics of my moves. A radical change in tone toward you can often be a precursor to a more serious problem such as job jeopardy. That’s true in work and personal relationships. We’ve all witnessed the out of favor employee being slowly but surely pushed aside by how things are said or how their comments or questions are handled. It’s not pretty but generally accurate.

We all use a variety of manners of speaking to convey our messages and get attention. Voice tone is an important tool. The challenge is to become aware of and practice the nuances of tone and how it should impact how you speak and how you hear others. Listen-up. Tone it down.

(c) Jane Cranston.

Author's Bio: 

Jane Cranston is an executive career coach. She works with success-driven executives, managers and leaders to reach their potential, better manage their boss and staff, as well as develop a career strategy to reach goals and aspirations. Jane is the author of Great Job in Tough Times a step-by-step job search system. Click here to subscribe to her twice monthly Competitive Edge Report.