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The problem with tone policing

Focusing on the delivery of information rather than the content can impair efforts to have substantive discussions about diversity and inclusion.

The problem with tone policing
As political and diversity tensions rise, researchers have found increased use of tone policing in attempts to shut down discussions about immigration, police brutality, religion, discrimination and marginalization.

Have you ever found yourself in an argument with someone and as the argument progresses you become more animated? Your voice might rise. You might talk a bit with your hands. It is clear you are passionate about your position and really want your companion to understand your point. At a critical point in the argument, your companion says your emotional response has made him uncomfortable and has completely undermined your point. He goes on to accuse you of overreacting and that the issue at hand is simply not that serious. He says, “If only you were able to deliver your message more politely, I could accept it more easily.” And then, he walks away.

The rush of emotions you might feel includes anger, sadness, disappointment and frustration. You were making your point, the point was important to you, and you were emotional. You question whether the dismissal of you and your point was justified because of your emotional response.

Now imagine that the argument was about race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or some other personal dimension that shapes your very identity. You are trying to make a point about sexism and the other person wants you to deliver the point politely and without emotion.

Sure, it is possible, but the reality is that the pivot to a discussion about message delivery often has a chilling effect in communications where diversity topics are centered. These kinds of interactions happen all the time, leaving individuals feeling silenced when discussing their lived experiences, especially in confrontational or contentious exchanges. The scenario above is an example of tone policing.

What is Tone Policing?

According to Dictionary.com, tone policing is “a conversational tactic that dismisses the ideas being communicated when they are perceived to be delivered in an angry, frustrated, sad, fearful or otherwise emotionally charged manner.”

In recent years, tone policing has become rampant on social media. Many think pieces have been written about tone policing’s effect on meaningful interactions. As political and diversity tensions rise, researchers have found increased use of tone policing in attempts to shut down discussions about immigration, police brutality, religion, discrimination and marginalization. It happens easily, as many people online read emotion or tone into social media postings and emails.

Online tone policing often serves to increase tensions and hostilities because those subjected to it feel that both the point they were making and their emotions related to the point were dismissed and invalidated. Some individuals might think they are being treated like children during the discussion. When a tone-policing perpetrator comments about the implied tone rather than the substance therein, the debate immediately becomes personal, emotions that might not have been present before are now obvious, and the hope for a positive resolution begin to fade.

Tone policing is a problem offline as well and can be especially problematic during contentious conversations across cultures. Culture and personal background have a significant effect on our comfort and willingness to engage in conflict. They also can shape our comfort levels in displaying intense emotion as a form of communication. We all bring a conflict framework with us to our work and personal environments, and we prefer that everyone around us engage us in ways that fit our personal frameworks. Of course, this is not realistic, and with increasingly diverse work and home lives, a greater likelihood exists that we will experience conflict that triggers emotional responses.

In other words, it can get ugly and fast! As important is the reality that tone policing never advances the discussion; it only serves to shut meaningful dialogue down.

‘Why Are You So Angry?’

What does tone policing look like, and how do you avoid committing it? Tone policing can take many forms. Here are a few examples:

  • “You know, you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar!”
  • “Calm down! Why are you so angry?”
  • “You’re being so irrational right now.”
  • “I can’t take you seriously when you’re like this. Come back when you’ve calmed down.”
  • “Can we discuss this like adults?”
  • “You know, you really could try to be more polite.”

In every instance, the message is essentially the same: The target’s emotion signals irrational thinking and that the argument being made is unworthy of consideration. This is  a fallacy. We can be emotional and rational simultaneously. Emotions can rise to the surface when we are engaged in conversations around diversity issues and individuals speak from lived experiences.

In structured conversations about controversial issues, setting mutually agreed-upon boundaries for the conversation can help all parties stay focused on the substance of the discussion rather than the expression of emotion. Agreeing to no name-calling or foul language are reasonable first-start boundaries. Delineating between expressions of anger versus meanness is important. Being angry is OK, but being intentionally mean is not.

Take a Timeout

Understanding your emotional triggers is very useful in knowing where your personal boundaries are in these conversations. How do you typically respond to criticism? How do you give criticism? Do you value various ways of communicating? How do you react to displays of emotion? Knowing what turns you off or engages you in a conversation is important as you embark on discussions related to diversity and inclusion.

When the conversation bumps into one of your triggers, it is OK to say, “I need a moment to collect my thoughts before responding.” This does not diminish the substance or emotional displays of others in the conversation. When you attempt to send away others in the conversation because of their emotion, this is an act of tone policing and it will likely escalate the conflict. Asking for a timeout for your emotional benefit allows you to own your reaction, reflect on the substance and come back to the conversation refreshed and ready to fully engage.

Avoiding tone policing requires a focus on the substance of what is being said rather than a response to the emotions surrounding the delivery. There must be a commitment to listen for the purpose, not simply to respond. Participants must be willing to be empathic and authentic in the midst of difficult conversations. A willingness to repair miscommunication is necessary because it might require members of the group to offer sincere apologies that own both the intent and impact of their words.

What You Hear Might Hurt

As often discussed by author Brené Brown, participants in difficult conversations must be brave. Conversations about diversity and inclusion are not always easy. They often draw on your core beliefs and values about people, equality and justice. These conversations require a level of transparency that can be painful in revealing and hurtful in hearing. Courage is needed to engage and remain in the conversation until it comes to an end.

You can have substantive diversity discussions that are educational and relationship building when you commit to focusing on the content and not the delivery of information. Mutual respect, boundaries, self-awareness and practicing good communication strategies can reduce or eliminate tone policing in these exchanges.

Lastly, a healthy dash of courage and willingness to engage will prime you for having successful diversity and inclusion discussions.

Diversity Toolbox columnist Dr. Lisa M. Greenhill is senior director for institutional research and diversity at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. AAVMC’s “Diversity & Inclusion” podcasts are available at http://bit.ly/2APLtk4.