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Tone Policing: How it Stifles Authentic Dialogue and Perpetuates Power Imbalances Within Organizations – Part 2

Feb 06, 2024
A collage of people with their hands to their mouth.


In the previous issue, we discussed the meaning of tone policing, who is impacted the most, and a few strategies team leaders can use to help employees effectively address tone policing. You can catch Part 1 HERE


How to Respond if You Are the Victim of Tone Policing

Navigating the delicate dynamics of communication can be challenging, especially when faced with tone policing; in other words, a situation where the focus shifts from the substance of your message to its perceived emotional tone. If you find yourself a victim of tone policing, the strategies discussed below will help.


  1.  Recognize the Tactic

Tone policing is a strategy in discussions where the emphasis is placed on critiquing the delivery or manner of a message rather than engaging with the actual content. This tactic is employed to divert attention from the core arguments being made and can hinder meaningful discussions. Recognizing tone policing is essential since it enables individuals to see through attempts to derail conversations and choose more effective responses.

Keep in mind: Being aware of tone policing helps maintain focus on the substantive content of the arguments and it prevents unnecessary diversions.


  1.  Stay Focused on the Issue

In the face of tone policing, it is crucial to resist being derailed by critiques of message delivery and, instead, reaffirm a commitment to addressing the issue at hand. Articulating points clearly and providing supporting evidence will not only strengthen your argument but also emphasize the importance of the topic at hand.

By staying focused on the substantive content, you demonstrate a dedication to constructive dialogue and a genuine interest in addressing the issue. This approach showcases a commitment to discussing the merits of the topic rather than getting entangled in peripheral matters.

Keep in mind: Redirecting the conversation back to the main points contributes to a more productive and substantive exchange of ideas, even when faced with efforts to shift the focus away from the core topics under discussion.


  1.  Address the Tactic Calmly

Responding in a composed and assertive manner is key. Start by calmly acknowledging the concern raised about the emotional tone by saying, "I understand that my tone may be perceived as emotional."

Following this acknowledgment, it is crucial to assertively redirect the conversation back to the main issue while emphasizing the importance of not losing focus on the substantive points being addressed. Phrases such as, "…but let's not lose sight of the main issue here," can help recenter the discussion.

Maintaining a calm demeanor in the face of tone policing also sets a standard for respectful communication, influencing the overall tone of the conversation positively and encouraging others to focus back on the discussion.

Keep in mind: By addressing the tactic calmly, and confidently redirecting the conversation toward the main issue, will help you (1) diffuse tension, (2) assert control over the narrative, and (3) promote a more constructive and substantive exchange of ideas.


  1.  Request Engagement with the Content

When confronted with tone policing, it is advantageous to explicitly request engagement with the content of your argument. Encourage others to shift their focus away from the perceived emotional tone and redirect their attention to the substance of your message. Saying something like, "I would appreciate if we could focus on the substance of my argument rather than the emotional tone," will help.

It is important to remind others that your emotional tone doesn't invalidate the content or the significance of the topic being discussed. In other words, emotions don't diminish the validity of the underlying points. You can say something like, "While emotions may be evident in my tone, let's not forget the importance of the issues we're discussing."

Keep in mind: This proactive strategy helps redirect the focus of the conversation back to the substantive aspects of your argument, particularly when faced with tone-policing attempts.


  1.  Express Your Feelings Assertively

In the face of tone policing, assertively communicate your feelings. Use clear and concise language to convey sentiments such as, "I feel frustrated when my tone is criticized instead of engaging with the substance of my argument."

By articulating your feelings, you offer others insight into the emotional impact of their actions. This approach not only personalizes the conversation but also emphasizes that tone policing has tangible effects on the dynamics of the discussion.

Moreover, it is important to explain why tone policing is unproductive, dismissive, detracts from the core issues, and hinders genuine dialogue. You can say: "Addressing my tone instead of the actual points I'm making distracts from the important issues we should be discussing."

Keep in mind: Expressing your feelings assertively not only communicates the emotional impact of tone policing but also explains why it is counterproductive. It encourages a more thoughtful exchange and fosters an environment where genuine dialogue can thrive.


  1.  Seek Support from Allies

Consider seeking support from individuals who share your perspective or are supportive of your position. Allies can play a crucial role in validating your feelings and offering additional support during the discussion.

Having allies creates a united front in the conversation, signaling to others a shared commitment to engaging with the substantive content. This collaborative approach may foster a more thoughtful and respectful exchange of ideas.

Keep in mind: Seeking support from allies involves reaching out to those who share your perspective. Allies can contribute to a more productive and inclusive dialogue while validating your experiences and helping shift the focus back to the content.


  1.  Disengage if Necessary

When faced with persistent tone policing despite efforts to redirect the conversation, and if the discussion becomes unproductive or hostile, it may be advisable to disengage for the sake of your well-being and emotional health. Disengaging doesn't imply conceding defeat. It signifies a strategic decision to temporarily step back from an unproductive conversation.

Before disengaging, communicate your intention, stating something like, "I feel that the tone policing is hindering our ability to discuss the main issues. I'm choosing to disengage for now, but I'm interested in revisiting this discussion later in a more constructive environment."

Keep in mind: Disengaging sends a powerful message that you prioritize constructive dialogue and are unwilling to engage in unproductive exchanges. It preserves your energy for more meaningful interactions while signaling your commitment to engage back when conditions are more conducive.


Final Thoughts

Tone policing often arises from a desire to maintain power dynamics or avoid uncomfortable conversations. By recognizing it and staying focused on the substance of your arguments, you can continue to contribute meaningfully to discussions while challenging this tactic.

Tone policing stifles authentic dialogue and perpetuates power imbalances in organizations. By understanding why tone policing occurs and employing effective strategies to address it, you can foster more inclusive and productive conversations.

Emphasizing the importance of focusing on content rather than tone encourages empathy, deepens understanding, and honors the diverse voices contributing to the conversation.

Let us strive for dialogue that values both substance and emotional expression, paving the way for growth, empathy, and positive change.

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