transcript of “People Say My Tone Sounds Mean” (Ask a Manager podcast episode 29)

This is a transcription of the Ask a Manager podcast episode “People Say My Tone Sounds Mean.”

Alison: I talk a lot here about the importance of tone at work: being direct without being adversarial and being assertive without being disagreeable. Getting your tone right can make a huge difference in how you come across when you’re talking to coworkers, or your manager, or really with anyone in your life. Today’s guest is worried that her tone at work is coming across as too confrontational and might be making people feel defensive. Hi and welcome to the show.

Guest: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Alison: Absolutely. So you sent me a letter saying that you’re worried that you’re too direct in a way that can come across as maybe aggressive, and your boss even told you that one coworker complained that you’re “hostile and mean.” And that the two of you, you and your boss, agreed that you’re very direct – which sometimes can be good, but sometimes can create conflict. Am I getting that right?

Guest: Yes.

Alison: And I think you said with this particular coworker, the one who complained, it’s making you nervous to talk to him now; that you spend a lot of time planning out what you’ll say and then it still never seems to work out well, and you feel like you’re in a cycle where you’re being seen as the aggressor and he’s being seen as the aggrieved party. Can you tell me more about that?

Guest: Yeah. Now that I know that this coworker perceives me as hostile and mean – and I have some examples of when that has happened – every time I need to talk about anything work-related with that person, I tend to spend multiple hours or even days thinking about the conversation we’re going to have before we actually have it and worrying about it. And sometimes losing sleep even, thinking about it. And kind of mulling over, okay, how can I approach this person? And when you first responded to my letter you asked me if I thought that it was really about him and not me. And it might partly be about him. It could be that this coworker is responding in the extreme to this trait that I have anyway. But I feel like my interactions with him are magnifying the problem, which is that I tend to be really direct. And also, I think there’s something about my tone that many people perceive as, well, bossy comes to mind, but excessively assertive, I guess. So I have started to feel really worried about this and it makes me want to just not talk at all.

Alison: I want to say, I do think it’s possible that it’s him as well, that he’s bringing his own weirdness to it – because it sounds like while maybe this has come up in other areas, with him it’s really intensified. I think there’s a decent chance that he’s bringing his own weirdness to it. Or who knows, maybe your interactions were tense enough in the past that now he’s always perceiving a bad tone even if it’s not always there. I wouldn’t discount the possibility that he’s bringing a lot of his own stuff to these interactions. But I think you also said that you have been consistently told in performance reviews to work on interpersonal communication. Have there been themes from that feedback that you’ve seen?

Guest: I should actually give you a personal view of that too. When I was in high school, I was on the debate team and I had this discussion with my debate coach in high school that has stuck with me the 20 years since then. She told me that I was scary and intimidating, which was really funny — to be on the debate team, which is this group of people who develop confrontational ways of speaking to each other. And my own mother also often says that I am the person who knows best (laughs). From her perspective, I’m the person who always has the idea and I was always going to express an opinion and have a strong view on things. And so, I think within my family and just in my personal history, I’ve always had this sort of disposition.

Since I became a librarian, that was about nine years ago, I have consistently received small and larger mentions of how my interactions could be improved. These are often soft suggestions, like “It would help you if you could find a way to be less direct or maybe read the room better,” things like that. But then those comments are always couched with, “It’s really helpful that you are so analytic, that you think through problems.” And so, it’s difficult to balance those two qualities, especially when I don’t always realize that I’m being very assertive.

Alison: I feel like we can’t talk about this without talking about the fact that sometimes gender plays a role in this kind of feedback. It’s very much a thing that women sometimes get told that they’re coming across as too direct or as abrasive when men with the exact same behavior don’t get told that. And that doesn’t mean that it’s always the case that this feedback is gendered, sometimes it’s not. But I don’t think we can talk about this without acknowledging that it’s a real thing that women sometimes have to deal with. And frankly the problem might not be that women get told it too much – it might be that men don’t get told it enough, and that we should be doing a better job of calling men out on behavior. But there is this thing where women are being appropriately assertive and they get told to tone it down. Do you have any sense of whether that could be in play here? Have you noticed that you’re expected to be more warm and fluffy than men around you are?

Guest: I work in this field where customer service and being open and kind and smiley are expected across the board of people who interact with people in general. And so, I tend to think that the feedback I’m getting is also partly related to where we are regionally. I’m in the Midwest, in Wisconsin, and if you know anything about the upper Midwest, you may have heard the phrase Minnesota Nice or Wisconsin Nice.

Alison: Yeah.

Guest: That pattern that people notice about this part of the country plays into that. And I’m not from this part of the country originally. On the subject though of gender, I do feel like that is a possibility, but I have definitely received this feedback from people who are women and men – and women police each other’s tone too, so I don’t think that gender isn’t an issue just because two women are talking, but I think that sometimes this might go beyond those social forces and maybe is a deeper issue about me. But maybe on the other hand I’m just making it too much about me, I don’t know.

Alison: This is one thing that’s so frustrating about this kind of thing that can be gendered and maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. It’s really hard to know for sure and it can make you second guess yourself. It’s very frustrating.

Guest: Yeah.

Alison: My sense from talking to you – and tell me if I’m getting this right because maybe I’m not – is that you’re someone who is very direct, maybe has not a whole lot of patience for B.S., and is often the person who will speak up about something that everyone else might be thinking, but no one else was saying. Am I getting that right?

Guest: Yes.

Alison: I think I recognize it in you because I have that tendency myself too. A lot of it, actually. And I think it’s hard when you’re a direct person to understand why people don’t react well to that. Because directness to me, and probably to you, seems like a virtue. I really think it’s a virtue. I love directness.

Guest: It feels so efficient.

Alison: Right? Okay. So yes, we are as one on this (laughs). It feels so efficient and it’s really annoying to feel like you have to sugarcoat a message or dance around a topic rather than just being able to come out and say it. But it is true that you have to harness it and you have to figure out how to direct it in the right places and at the right time, or otherwise it can alienate some people around you. Some people will love it. I would love it. I would like working with you, but other people will be alienated by it.

And I think that it’s true also that there can be two different types of people and I have a very strong suspicion about which one you are. Let me describe both types and then tell me if you think you identify with one of them. The first category is task-oriented people. These are people who are really focused on getting work done and they want to be really efficient about it and they’re going to feel good about an interaction if they can just cut to the chase pretty quickly, get the info they need, get a decision made, and move on. That to them is what feels like a positive, useful interaction. The second category are people who are more relationship-oriented. They have a hard time feeling good about a work interaction if they don’t like the other person or if they think the other person doesn’t like them. For them, it really matters how the other person says things and the value that it feels like the other person is putting on the relationship. If they’re dealing with a task-oriented person who just comes in and is straight down to business and just wants the work thing that they need and they’re not taking the time to make sure that the conversation feels good, this type of person is going to hate that. Does either of those types sound like you or like your coworkers?

Guest: I think I am more of a task-oriented person for sure. I think though that I also do want to feel good about the interactions that I have with people I’m working with, for sure. But I think you’re definitely right that what makes me feel good is probably a lot different than what this problem colleague feels good about, and probably other people will too. So yeah, I think I am task-oriented.

Alison: As a task-oriented person myself, I think from our vantage point it can be really hard to wrap your head around how someone could be the other type. If you think someone is valuing the relationship more than the work that needs to get done, it doesn’t feel logical. I mean, if there’s a task to accomplish, let’s just accomplish it and why do we have to do all of this extra work around tending to the relationship? And I think on our side of the divide, it can feel almost phony to have to do that, or like we’re coddling people. Does any of that sound familiar?

Guest: I am always looking for authentic experiences. I avoid phoniness and I think I value people who are able to be authentic in how they interact, in work and in other places.

Alison: Yeah. I think it’s really tough when you just have a different style, but the thing to remember is if you are dealing with someone who places way more emphasis on the relationship than what seems warranted to you – and again, I’m not saying you don’t place emphasis on the relationship. I’m sure relationships are important to you and you care about everyone coming away feeling good, but if you’re dealing with someone who’s much more on that end of the spectrum, if you come in and you’re just focused on what you need, to them it might feel like you’re sending some kind of message. This might be what’s happening with your coworker. He might be getting the message from signals you’re sending without intending to – that you don’t like him, or that you think you’re above him, or he’s not worth investing the time to make the interaction feel good to him. And that might be making those interactions much less pleasant, and maybe it’s something that has happened in some of your other interactions too. Does that feel like it could describe what’s been happening?

Guest: Yes, I think so.

Alison: Let’s talk then about what are the specific things that you can do if you have this just somewhat different approach that’s coming across differently to people than it would come across to you and differently than you want it to come across. I think some of it really is just about wrapping your head around this idea that the person needs different things from the interaction than you need – that they don’t want to cut right to the chase. You said that feels so efficient and I agree with you, but it doesn’t feel good to them. And I think really processing that as good as that feels to you and me, it doesn’t feel great to them. That they need more to feel like you’re interested in them as a person, and to feel like you care about them coming away from the interaction feeling good. And I think – and this is so key and so hard – I think you’ve got to see it as a truly legitimate preference. I think on our side of this divide it’s very easy to think, “Well, our way is so logical. It makes so much sense.” And I continue to think that, but I think you’ve got to see other people’s preferences as just as legitimate. Or even if you can’t see it that way, to at least recognize that you are going to get better results in your work if you can find a way to give them that, because you probably care a lot about the results you get in your work and maybe knowing that this is the path to doing that can make this feel more palatable. Does that resonate or are you thinking, “Ugh, that sounds like such a pain?”

Guest: Well, it does resonate. I wonder about how to deal with situations where you have to deliver bad news, or maybe propose something that’s going to be uncomfortable, or describe something – a change, perhaps – that is going to make someone unhappy. I feel like a lot of the feedback I’ve gotten about my tone has been in response to occasions where I’ve needed to say something that was going to be unpopular, or that might not have been as well received as I would’ve hoped. Something that would take some getting used to.

Alison: Yeah. How are you doing it now? Are you coming in and you’re straight to the point and you’re telling them, or how — is there an example you can give me of how you have approached something like that in the past?

Guest: Sure. I went through a phase where I said, “Okay, I’m just going to talk about difficult things in writing via email,” but there were problems with that. I mean, email itself is a troubled form of communication and it just didn’t always work. Sometimes you just need to have a conversation to work out details, and also to brainstorm and things like that. I will often, with the coworker that we were talking about, schedule an appointment or go into the person’s office and ask if I can schedule an appointment because I want to see if we could set up some time to talk about an issue. I named the issue and I talk about it just sort of generally. And it never feels like the right way to approach it. Whether I sent him an Outlook invite or if I go to him in person and ask, I feel like by the time we get to the conversation he’s always primed to be mad or object or something like that. And I definitely think that it’s not just about me, it’s also about him, but it’s like I’ve gotten to the point with this person where I can’t say anything without him assuming that I’m going to be super aggressive. And in other situations, with other groups of colleagues, I try to introduce an issue in a neutral way and then ask for people’s feedback. I try to be pretty engaged in conversation and not be dictatorial – although I’ve definitely been described as dictatorial, so I don’t know. I should record myself or something and listen to how I do it because I’m not always sure.

Alison: That’s really interesting actually. You might try recording yourself – not necessarily the real conversation because then you get into, you’re recording other people and you don’t have their permission and it’s weird. But you might role play it at home by yourself. I know that that’s hard to do in an authentic way, but it might be really interesting to hear it and play it back. I will say with this one guy, the more you say about it, the more I think that it might be that the relationship has just degraded to the point where it isn’t about you at this point, that it’s really about him. Because if you’re just saying, “Hey, can I get time on your calendar to talk about topic X?” and he’s already bracing with defensiveness, I don’t know that there is a lot that you can do about that.

Depending on the relationship itself, this could be terrible advice or this could be good advice, but with some people it could make sense to just put that on the table. To say, “Hey, I know that we have had a difficult working history and I’m really sorry for my part in that. I’ve thought about our history and I’ve realized that at times I have come across as more dictatorial than I should have.” Or whatever it is that you want to take responsibility for there, and say, “But I’m really committed to changing that and I’m getting the sense that whenever we meet you’re always bracing for it to go badly, and I wonder if there’s some way for us to press reset and try to start over where neither of us are bringing preconceived notions to the table.” Some people would really bristle at that and it would be a disaster, but for other people it might work. Do you have any sense of if that’s feasible with him?

Guest: Well, that definitely sounds like something that I would do, and that I feel like I have done with other people and other relationships once or twice in the past. And so, I can imagine myself saying that, but I feel pretty anxious thinking about having that conversation with this person. But I will say that I’ve talked with our boss about this and about ways to reset the relationship and she has suggested things like mediation with HR, or she is going to have our department do a strengths finder exercise to facilitate people talking about their strengths and to try to value each other’s different qualities in the workplace. And there might be an opening because I’ve talked with our boss about this and I know that she has also talked with a coworker about it. Although the message has always been that he is sad because of my behavior and not necessarily an agreement that there’s more than one person causing a problem, if that makes sense.

Alison: Yeah, I have to say I don’t love those solutions. I think mediation with HR in some ways makes it almost more adversarial and turns it into a bigger thing, and I don’t know that that’s necessary. I don’t know. I’m a little disappointed in your boss here, because I think from what you’ve said – and granted, I’m only hearing one side of it – it sounds like your boss should go to him and say, “Hey, you’ve got to let down your guard a little bit. I need the two of you to work together and that’s on both of you.” I’m annoyed that she’s not doing it.

I do wonder, maybe there’s a variation of what I was suggesting that is more workable. The next time you do have to sit down with him, maybe you just say it at the start: “Hey, I feel like our relationship has gotten really weird and that whenever we sit down together, you’re always bracing for something negative from me and I’m so sorry it’s gotten to that point. That’s not the way that I want these interactions to go.” And then you could just move in to whatever you want to talk about. It doesn’t have to be this big back and forth between you two.

Guest: Like an event.

Alison: Yeah. He doesn’t have to respond if he doesn’t want to. You’re just putting it out there.

Guest: I like that idea. I feel like I could do that.

Alison: So that might be worth trying because then it’s transferring the onus over to him a little bit more – because if you say that and then he still keeps acting like that, it’s harder for him to argue that he’s just so sad, because you’ve declared your intentions.

Guest: Right, yeah.

Alison: So that might be worth trying. I also think – again, I know I’m only hearing one side, but based on what you’re saying, I wouldn’t let the situation with him define your take on how you are doing with this kind of issue in general, because things sound like they’ve gotten really out of hand with him and that he’s not handling it well. I wouldn’t look at that and think, “Oh, this is a reflection on how I do with interpersonal stuff in general,” because I don’t think that’s the case. I definitely hear you that this has come up in other contexts, it’s not that you’re just hearing it in regard to him, but the thing with him sounds pretty extreme.

Guest: Yeah, I think you’re right.

Alison: But getting back to what you’re asking: how do you deliver bad news or something that someone isn’t going to want to hear? I think you are right to get it away from email because people can’t hear tone in email, and there’s no back and forth, and it’s just not as warm.

I don’t think you always have to schedule a meeting about it ahead of time. Sometimes that can put people on edge and make them nervous and they’re wondering what it is and now it’s this big deal because you had to schedule time to meet about it. Sometimes it can just be like, “Hey, do you have 10 minutes for me to update you on something?”

I think a big piece of it is making sure that the other person really feels heard. It might not change the ultimate message that you’re delivering, but people feel a lot better when they feel like it’s not just one sided information delivery, that you are checking in with them and you want to make sure that you hear their perspective and even if their perspective doesn’t change anything, that you’re really listening. And that’s not a magic bullet certainly, but if you’re not doing that, then that can be… whatever the opposite of a magic bullet is (laughs) a poison pill I guess.

Guest: Sure, yeah.

Alison: And I think too, recognizing, “Hey, I know this isn’t what you were hoping to hear” or “I think this is probably going to be pretty frustrating and I’m apologizing in advance about that” or injecting some acknowledgement that you do understand where they might be coming from and this isn’t a lovely thing for them to be hearing.

Guest: Yes. I think that’s something that I could work on consciously incorporating.

Alison: I always tell people this about emails when people worry that their emails are coming across as too brusque and they think they have to really fluff them up and that it’s going to be like an extra five minutes for writing every email. I always tell people: it’s an extra 10 seconds. It’s tacking on one sentence, and that’s it. And I think with this sometimes, it can seem like it’s got to be a bigger solution than it really needs to be. Sometimes it really can just be about listening a little bit more, or about one or two sentences of acknowledging what their perspective might be. Or even about saying at the end of it, like if you are delivering news that they’re not going to be thrilled about, if they seem pretty unhappy, saying, “You know, I might be misinterpreting this, but I’m getting the sense that you’re not thrilled about this. Is there anything that you want to tell me that we should be taking into account?” And then if they do and it doesn’t change anything, saying, “I don’t think it’s going to change anything right now, but I want to make sure that we’re factoring in what you’re saying.” This is hard to do without a specific example in mind, but something like, “Can we try this for the next month or two and then revisit it and see if what you’re worried about is a problem at that point?” Just something so that they don’t feel like you’re just this dictator coming in from above, swooping in doing things they don’t like, and then disappearing.

Guest: Yeah.

Alison: And that doesn’t bind you in a month or two to changing anything. It just binds you to checking in with them.

Guest: That sounds like something I could do and should do.

Alison: One other thing I would say is that if you are dealing with someone who you haven’t been especially impressed by in the past or who you think might’ve messed something up, sometimes it’s really easy for people to read that in the person talking to them. And so I think, to whatever extent you can, try to reset your thinking before you go into those conversations if you are dealing with people like that, and really give the person the benefit of the doubt. Assume that you might not have the full picture. Because it can change the way you’re coming across, it can just really change your tone, and it can give them a more positive feeling if they can sense that you’re not coming in with your mind already made up in some negative way about them.

Guest: Sure. Yeah.

Alison: Are there pieces of this that we haven’t quite tackled? I feel like maybe I’m not getting quite at the thing that’s bugging you.

Guest: Well, I think that your assessment that the issue with my coworker is really extreme is right on. I totally agree. I think that I have this tone of voice that I can’t really hear, and I am starting to think that it’s inhibiting positive relationships in general, or that it creates this intimidating persona that people find it hard to relate to. So I really appreciate the suggestions that you’ve made here about little things to say to sort of ingratiate myself into conversations, especially with people who may not really know me or who may be turned off by my brusqueness or all businessy-ness.

Alison: Yeah. Sometimes those small little changes and things you say can make a really big difference without requiring you to fundamentally change who you are, which I suspect might be part of the core of what is bothering you here.

Guest: I really do have the sense that this is a longstanding personality trait and I don’t know how to solve that problem. Because I just don’t know how to erase it and I’m not sure it can be erased. The issue with my coworker who seems to be super turned off by my tone has made me think a lot about whether I’m even in the right profession or whether I should even be in a role where I talk to people a lot. I guess I’m second guessing myself and I’m losing confidence.

Alison: I think before you start going there in your head and really questioning these fundamental things about whether you’re in the right job or not, I would try some of the things we’ve talked about in this call that seem small but actually can have a really big impact. Because it might be that you’re right, that these are just fundamental personality traits, they’re not going to change without an exhausting focus on them 24/7, which is no way to lead your life, to feel like you’re constantly walking on eggshells. But it might be that even though those things about you don’t change, that by adding in some additional behaviors that you’re not doing now, that it broadens the picture that people have about you. And so, if you are coming across as dictatorial in a meeting, it’s going to be against this backdrop of people seeing that you’ve gone out of your way to be warm and kind and friendly, and to check in with them, and to care about their point of view. And if you have that backdrop in place, then I suspect that the pieces that are rubbing people the wrong way will be less bothersome. And so, it might be not “you have to change who you are,” and more “just add in these additional things.”

Guest: Yeah. Well, I think I can do that.

Alison: That I think is way easier than changing the way that you’ve been speaking your entire life.

I would still take a look at the other piece of it. I think the idea about roleplaying conversations out loud in your living room and recording them and listening to it back might be really enlightening. Who knows? And I think too, if you have a friend or a coworker who you’ve worked really closely with who you trust – you’re going to have to find someone who’s direct and blunt also — and it might be worth asking people if they will give you really brutally honest feedback and say, “My suspicion is that this is what I’m doing, but I can’t put my finger on exactly how it’s coming out that way. Have you noticed things that you can share with me that would be helpful?” And if you can find a blunt friend, you might hear, “Oh, it’s actually these two things that you do that are really annoying,” or who knows. But that might be a fruitful conversation to have.

Guest: Yeah. Yeah.

Alison: Do you feel like you have steps for where to go from here? I know we haven’t solved the whole thing but hopefully you have an idea of some things that you can try that might help?

Guest: Yes, I do.

Alison: Great. Well thank you so much for coming on.

Guest: Thank you for answering my question. This was fun.

Alison: Good.

Alison: Thanks for listening to the Ask a Manager podcast. If you’d like to come on the show to talk through your own question, email it to – or you can leave a recording of your question by calling 855-426-9675. You can get more Ask a Manager at, or in my book Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work. The Ask a Manager show is a partnership with How Stuff Works and is produced by Paul Dechant. If you liked what you heard, please take a minute to subscribe, rate, and review the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Play. I’m Alison Green and I’ll be back next week with another one of your questions.