Tone Is a Choice

Recently, I heard from a client team about a misunderstanding over communication relayed in an email. As I sought to better understand the issue, it became clear that the communication miss was based not upon what was written, but the ways that the written words were interpreted. This is one of the key challenges of any form of written communication. A good friend of mine who is an entrepreneurial leader has often opined that the only time written communication is appropriate is for communicating positive information – that anything negative or even neutral needs to be communicated personally (in person or by phone) to minimize the risk of misinterpretation. I think we can all agree that we are overusing email and texting (I’ll explain more below), and it’s important to understand the risks and flaws inherent in any written form of communication. However, I first want to focus on the difference between the impact of an email upon the receiver versus the sender’s intent.

Generally, we have a clear intent in any communication. If not, that’s a simple starting point—clarify your intent before you communicate. However, the impact of your communication is not always what you intend. The disparity between impact and intent could be due to a variety of causes: prior communication or relationship history, differences in position or power between communicators, overall organizational and team culture and dynamics, or personal insecurities. While we can’t anticipate with certainty how the receiver will be impacted by the communication, it’s important to be aware that the impact will often be different from the intent. This reality is another reason to limit the use of written communication unless the message is simple and positive.

In the scenario mentioned above, the receivers did not like the “tone” of the email, which led to a discussion about tone in written communication. However, here’s a truth about written communication – unless there are explicit words that demonstrate tone (f*** you, you’re an idiot, you completely blew this assignment, etc.), written communication does not have unequivocal or universal tone. Tone is the interpretation of the receiver. Even if the communicator intended tone, it’s still true that the receiver adds tone to written communication.

As the receiver of communication, it is my choice to interpret the tone and react based upon the tone that I choose. I can also choose to read and take the words at face value and choose NOT to ascribe any tone. This will enhance my openness to the communication and reduce the possibility of a misunderstanding or disconnect.

When you receive written communication, I encourage you to focus on the words without adding tone. IF you think there’s more to a communication than the words, ask for clarification and ask in person or by phone so you have the full range of communication elements.

Email is generally a form of communication fraught with risks of misunderstandings, misinterpretations and breaks in relationship. Here’s a simple way to remember the role of written communication – it’s best used not primarily for communication, but for confirmation. When we speak directly to each other, we hear and understand more and can easily identify misunderstandings.

I regularly hear people comment on the communication misses that happen with written communication, especially email and text. I’m sure you’ve all experienced this, and you likely have many humorous examples. Remember this – tone is a choice, and our communication and tone choices, both in giving and receiving, will determine the effectiveness of our written communication.

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