“One often contradicts an opinion when what is uncongenial is really the tone in which it is conveyed.” Friedrich Nietzsche

This article is not just about the tone we employ, but about interpreting or misinterpreting what has been said. Though our tone of voice can play a critical part in how what we mean to say is received by listeners.

Along with tone, another vital factor in spoken communication is our accompanying facial expressions; these can sometimes be misconstrued even more than what’s being said, or at least add to any potential misunderstanding.

Friedrich Nietzsche, probably in a contradictory pose.
Friedrich Nietzsche, probably in a contradictory pose.

 A personal example of this is a friend of mine who is a doctor; she tends to frown frequently when in conversation, particularly when listening. I only recently realised that I have often interpreted her frown as negative, when that’s not at all what she means to convey. She simply tends to overuse the ‘frown of concentration’. This mismatch is known as Discongruence, i.e. what is being said is not aligned with the facial expression we would generally expect. So my misinterpretation is not surprising or uncommon.

 Next, how do we interpret the words that we hear? This is a veritable minefield! What happens between ear and brain (to oversimplify) can be quite a leap, and often a subconscious one. Even if, or when, we’re giving our full attention to our conversational partner, a fair amount of distortion can take place.  As many of us know, whether it’s us or the person we’re in conversation with, we are often not giving full attention.

The one not doing the talking is often giving more thought to what they want to say next, rather than exclusively listening before formulating their response! Furthermore, human beings have a tendency to hear what’s being said through their own filters, colouring the information with their opinions and views of the world.

Sometimes the scenario can be fairly innocuous, albeit irritating, and any misinterpretations that arise are dismissed or forgiven. During more stressful times, however, emotions can escalate and make for an explosive atmosphere, creating huge gulfs between family members, colleagues, communities or entire nations! For example, a typical American pilot euphemism such as “drop the wheels” can cause real problems for the more literal listeners such as the Japanese, and their aeroplane pilots!

In stressful conflict situations, it would be prudent to heed the advice of someone expertly trained in conflict resolution such as Gabrielle Rifkind, co-author of ‘The Fog of Peace: The Human Face of Conflict Resolution’. Writing in The Guardian newspaper earlier this year, she says:

Institutions do not decide to go to war or to make peace or decide who to destroy or kill; those actions are the responsibility of individuals. So to try to understand the root causes of conflict only in terms of power politics and resources, without also understanding human behaviour, undermines our effectiveness in preventing war and making peace.”

 Gabrielle Rifkind’s context is war-torn regions that have often been traumatised by conflict for many years; nevertheless, she accurately points out that “actions are the responsibility of individuals”.

 I have used an extreme example to illustrate my point; thankfully, here in the UK we no longer live in war-torn communities. That being said, if we each focus on being responsible for what we say on a day-to-day basis, misunderstandings and conflicts can be substantially reduced. 

  GPB’s simple illustration of congruence, which runs (like correlation     coefficients) from –1 to +1.
GPB’s simple illustration of congruence, which runs (like correlation
coefficients) from –1 to +1.

With regard to our day-to-day spoken communication, if listeners bring all their attention to what the speaker is saying, they are far more likely to have successful, productive and even inspiring communications between colleagues and other counterparties.

The same can be said if we are aware, considerate and as unambiguous as possible with our verbal and non-verbal communication when we are speaking, as well as aware of the filters that listeners are most likely to be using.


In summary, here are some tips to start practising in your daily conversations:

 1.Listen actively when on the receiving end of any communication. Importantly, this means not composing what you want to say before your interlocutor has finished speaking.

 2. Also as the listener, be aware of your own mood or ‘state’ and the filters that are likely to result. The more conscious you are of this, the more you will realise that you could be misinterpreting what is being said.

 3. If there is something you think you may have misinterpreted, ask the speaker to clarify, explain or elucidate. You can even explain what you thought they meant if that helps.

 4. As the speaker, pay attention not only to what you are saying but also how you are saying it, i.e. through your   tone of voice and facial expressions, even body posture.

5.  Again, as the speaker, your mood or state can influence how your communication is delivered to the receiver.  Bring attention to your mood; focus on your breathing and take time to think before saying what you want to say.

6. Ensure the listener has correctly interpreted what you said by getting feedback from them, clarifying that what they heard was what you intended.

The more we bring this level of awareness and attention to our spoken communications, the higher quality they will be; the ensuing results are very likely to be positive and, dare I say, even life-enhancing!

Lynda Russell-Whitaker