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Tone Policing: How it Stifles Authentic Dialogue and Perpetuates Power Imbalances Within Organizations – Part 1

Jan 29, 2024
A collage of people with their hands to their mouth.



Imagine the following scenario:

In a team meeting at a software development company, the group is discussing a new project that involves collaborating with different departments. Julia, the only female developer on the team, voices her concerns about the tight deadlines and suggests that the team needs more time to properly plan and execute the project.

John, a senior developer, responds by saying, "Julia, I appreciate your input, but let's try to keep the tone positive. We're all under pressure; we need solutions, not complaints."

Julia, taken aback by John's response, feels dismissed and frustrated. She had raised a valid concern about project timelines and was met with a tone-policing comment.

This makes her hesitant to speak up in future meetings, fearing that her input will be disregarded or that she will be perceived as negative. As a result, the team missed out on valuable insights from Julia, and the project planning continued without addressing the valid concerns she had raised.

The impact of tone policing in this scenario is not just on Julia's confidence and willingness to contribute but also on the overall quality of the project as valid perspectives are left unexplored.


Understanding Tone Policing

Within the realm of our workplace conversations, for some individuals, the manner in which they express themselves receives more focus than the actual substance of their content. In other words, they fall victim to tone policing.

Tone policing refers to the phenomenon where someone focuses on or criticizes the emotional expression or tone of a person's message rather than addressing the content or substance of their argument.

Dr. Janice Gassam Asare argues that 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."

The consequence of tone policing is that it invalidates the speaker’s perspective, diminishes their credibility, or diverts attention away from the actual issue at hand.

Leaders striving to create an inclusive workplace must understand that tone policing (1) silences members of marginalized groups, (2) maintains power imbalances in discussions, and (3) allows discrimination to persist.


Who Is Impacted the Most?

Tone policing can impact individuals across various demographic groups, but it is often noted to disproportionately affect marginalized or underrepresented groups such as women, racial or ethnic minorities, and individuals from the LGBTQ+ community.

For example, women expressing assertiveness or concern in the workplace tend to be labeled as "too emotional" or "difficult" compared to their male counterparts. Similarly, individuals from ethnic minority groups may face challenges when expressing their perspectives, as their communication styles are often misinterpreted or unfairly evaluated.

We have all heard the “angry Black woman” stereotype. What is rarely discussed is this group’s emotionally expressive style of communication. Researchers have found that African Americans (not all, of course) prefer a more overt display of emotions during a discussion. Frustration, anger, and other emotions are comfortably expressed to the other party. They also use a lot of hand and arm gestures and employ greater variation in speech rate, volume, and pitch. This is a communication style!


How Team Leaders Can Help Employees Address Tone Policing in an Effective Manner

Tone policing not only diminishes the group’s capacity to focus on the issues at hand but also perpetuates power imbalances within conversations. Understanding why tone policing occurs and employing effective strategies to address it are crucial for fostering inclusive and productive dialogue.

Team leaders who recognize and challenge tone policing, can create spaces that honor all voices and encourage authentic engagement.

Confronting tone policing requires a thoughtful and proactive approach. Here are some strategies to consider:


  1.  Educate team members about tone policing, its impact, and why it undermines healthy discourse. It is important to foster a culture in the department that values respectful and empathetic engagement, where the focus is on the content of the discussion rather than the tone.


  1. In group discussions, establish clear ground rules that emphasize respectful and inclusive communication. Set guidelines that encourage participants to focus on the issues at hand and discourage tone policing or dismissive behavior.


  1. Encourage all participants to consider the intent behind their statements and the impact they have on others. Promote self-reflection and empathy, and help individuals recognize the potential harm caused by tone policing.


  1. Emphasize the importance of validating emotional responses within discussions. Encourage participants to empathetically engage with the feelings expressed and recognize that emotions often stem from personal experiences and deeply held convictions.


  1. When tone policing occurs, redirect the conversation back to the substance of the argument. Remind participants of the issue being discussed and encourage them to address the content rather than fixating on the tone.


  1. Model inclusive behavior by actively listening to others, responding to their ideas rather than their tone, and maintaining respectful engagement. Encourage others to do the same so you can create a positive and supportive environment.


  1. In cases where tone policing becomes pervasive or significantly disrupts the discussion, consider involving a neutral third party to mediate. This person can help navigate the conversation, ensure fairness, and address any issues that arise.


Ultimately, addressing tone policing helps organizations eliminate barriers to effective interaction, and ensures that everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute and be heard. These efforts will contribute to the development of a workplace that fosters inclusion and strives for equity among its employees.

In the next issue, we will go over seven strategies individuals can use in case they are the recipient of tone policing.



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