what your tone should sound like in tricky work conversations

This week’s episode of the Ask a Manager podcast is one I’ve been excited to do since I launched the show, and it’s one of the reasons why I thought a podcast could be really useful.

This episode talks about tone. When I answer questions here, I give a lot of sample language to use and often talk about the right tone to say it in. But it’s not always easy to convey the right tone in writing; it’s much easier to do it when you can hear me! So I’ve devoted this episode of the show to demonstrating tone for a bunch of different situations.

This episode is 13 minutes long. You can listen to the show on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, Volumes, or Anchor (or here’s the direct RSS feed). Or you can listen right here:

{ 69 comments… read them below }

  1. Sirena*

    I highly suggest that people record themselves talking and really listen to themselves.

    It’s the only way to really hear yourself.

    It’s very easy to think you sound better than you do.

    My law school made all students give arguments in video. We had to self critique. The only person who was realistic about how they sounded and presented before this excercise was an actor prior to law school.

    1. Cordoba*

      I agree with this 100%.

      It is amazing to see how dramatically people can improve their presenting, public speaking, and conversational tone in a short time with relatively little focused effort.

      Getting better at this sort of thing doesn’t have to be a lifelong project. Even a few hours of working on it will result in substantial long-lived benefits, and it’s not hard to go from “reliably bad at this” to “One of the better people at it in any random group”.

      1. Justin*

        Yep. I became a way better teacher after watching myself on video just a few times. I wish I still did it but it’s not feasible at my current job.

    2. BRR*

      I never thought of this in a business context but what a great idea! I just did this and thankfully I’m within the ballpark of what I thought I sounded like for tone. I’m not super thrilled with the sound of my voice but I think we sound worse to ourselves.

    3. Joan Callamezzo*

      A doctor I worked with told me that part of his medical school training involved videotaping (mock) patient interviews. He said it was really eye-opening and helped identify verbal tics (“Um, “actually”) body language issues (crossed arms, lack of eye contact), tone of voice, interrupting, whether or not the students were picking up on cues the patients were giving them, and so on. This should be required for every med school!

      1. Wintermute*

        I misread that as “videotaped mocking patient interviews” and I thought that sounded like an awesome, if questionable, assignment…

    4. Middle School Teacher*

      I took a class for school counsellors and we had to counsel each other and record our sessions. I enjoyed it and I was genuinely interested, but I was surprised at how unsympathetic I sounded. Not rude or mean, just … not into it. It really decided me against pursuing that as a career. I didn’t feel I’d be very effective.

    5. Strawmeatloaf*

      I already know I sound like a 12-year old who hasn’t gone through puberty.

      I hate hearing my own voice. It’s so much deeper to me when I am talking, and then I hear the recording and I wish I could change my vocal chords.

      1. soon 2 be former fed*

        You would be amazed at what speech lessons/vocal coaching could do for you!

      2. Engineer Woman*

        Oh, there are others out there?! I don’t answer calls anymore from unknown numbers but when I did / if I do – I sometimes get asked if hey could speak to my parents!

        I hate my voice. I don’t know what speech lessons could do to actually change your voice though.

      3. Wintermute*

        That’s probably an artifact of how recording works (higher pitched sounds are easily to mechanically record, and the smaller the speaker the more the distortion of frequency range. The FIRST thing you notice going from a cheap “pencil” condenser microphone on a desktop or in a headset to a prosumer, professional or studio microphone is how much more there is in the low mid-range and bass.

    6. HR is Fun*

      Sirena, I have heard that advice before (like from Toastmasters), but I’ve never done it. These comments are making me think I should give it a try. Thanks!

    1. Irene Adler*

      I’m told I sound like a Disney character. In fact, this person strongly encouraged me to pursue this line of work.

      So imagine your boss sounding like a Disney character. So, there’s no way I’m taken seriously.

      1. Amy Farrah Fowler*

        Depends on the Disney Character… if it’s Mickey or Minnie Mouse, sure it might be tough, but Ursula… I’d listen if she were talking ;-)

      2. frostipaws*

        Sherlock Holmes would always take you seriously!
        I too suffer from the squeaks. Just bought Set Your Voice Free; hope it cures my ailment.

  2. Lil Fidget*

    This is great to know. I think tone is where I blow it 99% of the time. Even if I have the right logic backing up my decision and the right scripts in mind, it just … comes across wrong if you’re not very sensitive to it. And of course people pay more attention to how you say something than they do your actual words.

  3. Anonymous Educator*

    Such a great use of the podcast format! Definitely something much harder to convey in your blog.

  4. Hills to Die on*

    I think I sound pretty good until I get upset, then it comes through and I have a hard time not showing my frustration. That’s one of the reasons why I prefer email. It’s easier for me to be professional.

        1. GG Two shoes*

          +1 This was one piece of feedback my boss had for me- I needed to be more aware of my facial expressions, especially during board meetings.

          Luckily, we do a majority of them via video conference so it’s easier for me to see if I’m frowning or furrowing my eyebrows unintentionally.

          1. Red Reader*

            Yup. I have no problem not vocalizing “the duck you say?!?!” But that right eyebrow just jaunts off into my hairline all on its own without clearance. :-P

            1. SarahKay*

              I recall being in a meeting where we were being asked to take unpaid leave (by a higher-up, whose bonus would benefit from the savings our unpaid leave would generate! Not that he mentioned that, of course) and realising half-way through that this was not a dial-in call, this was all of us in a meeting room, and so maybe I should be a little less obvious about rolling my eyes at everything he said.

    1. fposte*

      For me timing is key on this–while you don’t want to wait forever, I find giving it a couple of days for me to let go of the emotions can help. And, cheesy as it may sound, practice helps too–it was initially difficult for me to know how to say things without sounding frustrated, so you can practice that you’re saying it to somebody you adore, or somebody you deeply respect, and see what you’ve let go of in your tone there.

      And I gotta say this was a really steep curve for me but I think it’s a hill worth climbing, if you’ll pardon the play on your username. It is amazing how much better conversations personal as well as professional go when your skillset gives you the choice of letting your words carry the message on their own.

      1. Hills to Die on*

        Good suggestions–thank you! I will implement them in my nice long commute home. This is something that isn’t out of control but is certainly something I want to manage better. :)

  5. Winifred*

    This is the first podcast I ever listened to start-to-finish. Very timely for me, as I am struggling with tone as I am currently having to push back a bit on a huge, complicated project that came out of nowhere here at the office … and of course It Must All Be My Priority.

  6. Mouse*

    There’s always more to ask for besides salary, too. When I got a full time offer after my internship, I was happy to have had a casual conversation months before with HR where she said that when she can’t increase salary, she’s always happy to talk about extra vacation days. In negotiations for my job, she told me she couldn’t budge on salary, but we managed to land at 4 extra vacation days! So if their initial answer is “no”, you may be able to work with them to find something else that works.

  7. LaLoupe*

    This is such a great use of podcasts and a really critical episode/topic. Thank you so much for creating this! I’m a long time reader of your blog and it’s helped me be a better employee and manager.

    I know I’m not alone when I say it’s hard to stay calm when your boss is making unreasonable demands, blaming you for something you didn’t do, or asking you to take on work that’s beyond your skills and paycheck. Hearing your tone, and the gentle “re-phrasing” of said tone (as you mentioned, for example, genuinely being open to the possibly you might be wrong and that 100% will reflect in your tone) is very helpful.

    I think something additional that would be great are some recommendations from you in how to be calm in the moment. Some of these interactions you can be prepared for, but how do you stay calm and non-defensive when it’s sudden and abrupt? Any techniques if your boss runs in and goes on a rant?

    Thank you!

    P.S: Your voice is so lovely (and podcast perfect)!

  8. Amber Rose*

    I’ve taken enough speech and debate courses that I think I’m pretty aware of my tone, but that doesn’t always translate to being able to regulate it. I snapped at a coworker last week in a moment of frustration, despite my best efforts to keep my tone at firm but professional. :/

    I went and cooled my head and apologized/explained my frustration and was forgiven pretty readily but I clearly have some work to do.

  9. Ali*

    This is an AAM dream come true for me, Alison – thanks so much for recording it. :) I’ve always wanted to actually HEAR you say the tonal recommendation scripts.

  10. Breathless*

    After listening to the podcast, it seems like the audio changed half of the way though. I understand that people need to breath in order to speak… and live. But when the breaths are louder than the speech it is very distracting. Oddly enough I just got to the part where Alison brought up annoying noises…

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Oh no! I’ll have to listen again and see if I can figure out what happened!

      For what it’s worth, this first “season” is an experiment as I try out the format, but any future seasons should be more polished!

  11. fnom*

    Hey Alison, would it be possible to get the transcripts sooner? Can’t listen to podcasts but am happy to read a transcript and would love to participate in the discussion…after a week it’s pretty dead! :)

  12. Flash Bristow*

    I’m looking forward to the transcript on this one!

    Seriously, I hope it does describe the tone (breezily, serious low tone, projecting without shouting, smiling through their voice, or whatever).

    I often wonder about some of the things suggested here, particularly the “can you agree to that?” or “does that sound like something you can commit to?” – I know you need to ‘close the deal’ but it feels very awkward. Maybe it’s because I’m British? I’ve noticed a few turns of phrase we just don’t generally use (“Again, thing-I-just-said” “I don’t know what else to tell you” “Have a good day” and so on) so hearing phrases from your advice will be really useful to me. Thanks Alison! Good luck to the transcriber!

    1. AntoniaB*

      Do you think a good Brit equivalent for what Americans might call ‘by in’ would be a friendly ‘what do you think’. I know in theory that’s asking for feedback, but my experience is it’s always used to seek agreement.

  13. SpaceNovice*

    Everyone listen to this podcast, seriously! I use this weaponized friendly, open tone naturally. I had an inkling that my tone had something to do with why I could get results when others couldn’t, but now I understand it fully. Thank you!

    A major benefit to using this tone long-term is that people start coming to you when they need to instead of just burying their head in the sand about a problem you can help them fix. They know you will listen to and work with them. People also will come to you with constructive ideas for improvements and feel “safe” to flag problems/bugs that need to be addressed.

    It’s creating a culture where people can be wrong and not be punished, allowing for constructive feedback, debate, and truth-telling. That’s one of the major reasons why Ford didn’t need a bailout like the other car makers: they hired a leader that successfully encouraged people to truthfully represent statuses in part designs. Then they started making the parts better and Ford’s situation improved. (Whether or not that culture still exists at Ford, I don’t know, but it made a huge impact at the time.)

    1. SpaceNovice*

      Ah, it turns out they DID take funds from the federal government, just from a different source. Sorry about that! It was portrayed differently. Anyway, here’s some information about it below.

      The correction:

      The solution (which includes a lot of other stuff, but you can see how openness/tone is a part of something greater.. it was extended to how Mullaly lead in general):

      1. Cordoba*

        The writeup in “Chevy Hardcore” that you link to is inaccurate.

        The money Ford received in ~2008 was from the the Energy Department, through the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing program and was earmarked for technology development and plant overhauls; it also required the recipient to be “financially viable” specifically to prevent it from being used to prop up a failing company. This program was conceived in 2007, before the financial crisis occurred.

        It was not a bailout and was open to any automaker or auto supplier – Nissan and Tesla also received funds from this program, as did now-defunct Fisker and VPG. It appears to be an example of the fairly normal sort of program where the government loans money to big companies to develop desirable technology.

        It was not at all analogous to the bailouts, government ownership, and bankruptcy process that GM and Chrysler got; in all likelihood Ford would have made it through the crisis intact without this money but it certainly helped them to field more efficient vehicles more quickly than they otherwise would have.

        1. SpaceNovice*

          Somehow, I shouldn’t be surprised that a site named “Chevy Hardcore” lied about it. Ah, the one time I don’t have time to double-check my resources is when Murphy’s Law strikes. Sorry about the inaccuracy and thank you for the correction!

  14. Is pumpkin a vegetable?*

    I just finished listening, and it was very helpful! I really liked your advice to adopt a tone that is calm, matter-of-fact, and collaborative. I will be helping a manager have some difficult conversations with two of his reports, and will be using this advice. Thank you, Alison!

    1. soon 2 be former fed*

      I find it difficult to balance sounding calm and matter of fact with not sounding mechanical or rehearsed.

      1. Oilpress*

        I agree. A lot of these examples sounded so devoid of human emotion that I would actually think too much meaning was lost. If an employee of mine feels overwhelmed by tasks then I want them to convey that to me without dancing around the point.

  15. Penny*

    Looking forward to listening to this one! I always struggle between sounding to firm or too weak and without veering into condescending or like I’m admonishing someone when I’m really just trying to let them know something is serious or give important feedback. You give great advice on handling these tough conversations, but it can be hard to understand what the right tone is through print.

  16. Strawmeatloaf*

    I still think there should be a designated sarcasm font. That way at least people will know if you’re being sarcastic on purpose through writing.

  17. Mimmy*

    This was very helpful! Tone is definitely not my strong suit, at least when it comes to “sticky” situations.

    One issue in particular for me is controlling my tone when I am frustrated or very nervous. Any suggestions there (aside from the usual “take a breath” or “count to 10” lol)?

  18. Argh!*

    Tone-trolling at work gives me hives because only certain people get accused of having the wrong tone. The others have “Mister” in front of their name.

  19. Dancing Pangolins*

    My question is for Alison. Is it possible to post this podcast series on Sticher? Sticher was one of the first app to make good use of playlists across platforms (any kind of phone, computer, etc) and I am so embedded into using that platform, no other really makes sense for me, and I haven’t been listening to the podcast for that reason. Not sure if there are any other listeners/readers out there who use Sticher and would benefit from this, but I hope you’ll consider it.

  20. LongTimeReader4*

    Alison, thank you for this podcast; this topic has been on my mind a lot lately. There is one thing, though, that you may want to reconsider and that’s the tone you take when you address a co-worker about loud gum-chewing or other disruptive mouth-noises. To *me* the tone you demoed would come across as passive-aggressive, and the phony laugh would only confirm the insincerity. Some of this may be cultural. I’m from NYC, where people tend to be fairly blunt when you’re doing something that is socially unacceptable, so I think the way I would have handled that conversation is “I dont mean this disrespectfully, but can you please chew your gum more quietly,” in a fairly even tone. It’s not a conversation that will go over well in *any* case because what you’re essentially telling another adult is that they are lacking in manners, but I think its worth considering your audience before deciding what strategy to use to address this topic with them. (I also want to add that in the age of the open-office, HR departments need to be a little more firm with laying ground-rules around the social expectations regarding sound. I myself work next to a supervisor who clears his throat and blows his nose frequently and loudly and it takes me actively reminding myself that I need to keep my job from turning to him and asking if he was raised by wolves. Just…disgusting!)

Comments are closed.