The importance of tone of voice

Communication is the key to success in the workplace. Whether you’re leading a meeting, or speaking to a potential client, almost everything you do depends on how you put across your point to other people.

What many people don’t realise is that your tone of voice has a big impact on communication – both positively and negatively. It can make interactions either highly engaging, or uncomfortable and off-putting.

© Kamil Macniak /

Why is tone so important?

It has been claimed that only 10% of conflict in the workplace is down to a genuine difference of opinion, with the other 90% caused by misunderstandings due to people’s tone and the impression they have given.

The important thing about tone is that it conveys meaning and clarifies what we’re saying. Even a phrase as simple as, “I don’t know,” can be perceived in different ways, depending on how you express the words.

For example, it can be taken as a genuine response that you don’t know the answer to a query, but that you’re amenable to finding out. However, using a sharper tone, with the intonation on the “I”, can imply you’re frustrated with the person for questioning you, suggesting an undertone of, “How should I know?”

This may not be what you intended at all, but once you have been seen to be giving this response, listeners will already have formed an opinion. Your tone can affect how people perceive you and determine whether they are willing to listen to you.

How tone affects the workplace

While people can pick their words carefully, tone is more difficult to manage when communicating with others. It’s important to get it right at work, because if a colleague or manager sounds disinterested, irritated or downright bored when offering suggestions or supervising, their negative tone can damage engagement and morale.

The first step towards improving communication is to listen to yourself. If you’ve never recorded a meeting at which you were speaking, or even a phone call, you should! You might be surprised or even shocked at how you come across when speaking and interacting with others.

If you feel you have a negative tone, reflect on the reason for this. It can be part of a bigger picture, such as if you’re having a tough time at work, or in your home life. If you feel stressed, your tone of voice can reflect this subconsciously.

Before going into work, think about how you’re feeling. You don’t want to come across as stressed and anxious in your weekly team meeting. Take a few deep breaths and try to feel calm before you walk into the room.

If you’ve noticed a colleague seems to be struggling and their tone is disinterested or stressed, address it with them. There’s no point in letting it go if it’s causing problems. Sometimes, the person may be unaware their tone isn’t positive. Have a chat with them to try to resolve any issues and then move forward.

Types of tone

While tone is one small part of communication, it is still an important one. When you improve your tone, it can help to create a more positive environment in the workplace. When you’re speaking to your team, it can strengthen bonds, resulting in better teamwork and collaboration.

When you start thinking about your tone of voice, you can start to train yourself in how to use the relevant tone to suit the workplace situation. One tone that you will need, especially if you’re a manager or team leader, is a motivational one.

Train yourself to speak with conviction, motivating people to plan for success by tapping into their potential. If you’re speaking to a group or an individual, a motivational tone will keep listeners interested and inspire them to reach for their goals.

An informative tone of voice is one used by some teachers – the ones who leave a lasting impression on their students’ lives. A calm and informative tone, while imparting information, enhances how people respond to your knowledge. It inspires them to grow.

If you’re used to speaking to large groups, you may be unfamiliar with speaking in a soft tone at work. In fact, it can be very useful for intimate one-to-one conversations. It can help to nurture a relationship and form a bond. It can also create empathy during a difficult conversation, making people feel more comfortable and safe.

Using a respectful tone of voice, no matter who you’re speaking to, is always appreciated by colleagues. Whether you’re speaking to your own manager, or a member of your team, show your respect for them as a colleague and person by always being polite and respectful.

It conveys humility, kindness and truthfulness, so is a useful tone to use when talking with a client, or trying to close a sale. Being respectful rather than too forceful, will get better results.

Of course, there’s always a place for humour, but only in the appropriate situation. For example, if you’re speaking at an event, add humorous anecdotes and quotes to keep your audience in a positive frame of mind. You must keep your tone cheerful, without descending into sarcasm, as this will have the opposite effect to the one you intended.

Learning how to communicate effectively by using the appropriate tone of voice is something that can help make your professional and personal life more successful, so it pays to think about the way you speak and modify your tone if necessary.

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