Tone Counts

Wow! Did I ever get a good lesson this week. I posted a reflection on the importance of preparing for the unspoken ‘affective’ components of meetings at the LeaderTalk blog. The premise of the piece was that most of us spend 90%-100% of our energy focusing on the ‘paper agenda’, the items from the cognitive domain that the meeting is ‘about’. Few of us spend time on the part of the meeting ‘iceberg’ that remains below the surface such as the levels of trust that exist, whether the mood of the team is negative, resigned, or ready to move forward, or whether there is a real feeling of purpose and shared accountability on the team. The list of important affective elements is much longer than the few I’m pointing out as examples.

Anyway, my post shares a few ways that I prepare for the affective part of the meeting. I have practices that help me be clarify the affective goals I have for the meeting, to help me shed personal agendas, negative judgments, and that help me get into a mindset of a good listener. In essence, I do practices so that I can be open, present, and connected with the team, rather than scripted and full of judgments about them.

When I checked back to see if there were comments about the post, I was shocked to see the response below which was targeted at a Principal who had left, what they thought was an innocent comment about my post. Something in the tone of the Principal’s comment hit a nerve with a teacher who then ‘let it fly’.

I can’t remember the last time teachers were actually “consulted”. You spend so much of your time telling us what to do, you never have the time to find out if what you’re telling us is worthy. Hey, we just might be able to help!

You all need to come on down off your high horse, get a little humility, and realize that just because you sold your souls to become administrators does not mean you know a damn thing we teachers don’t know.

In my experience, principals are great at ass-kissing, but not so great with kids, and even worse with subordinates.

Maybe your false sense of confidence blinds you to reality. Maybe your self-importance causes you to become deaf to anything but what you tell each other in Principal meetings.

Do you even realize what you sound like when you say these things? At least I realize I come off as an angry, pompous ass; but that doesn’t make me wrong! “

One blogger responded to the irate teacher’s tone:

It’s okay to use a little less invective and be a little more polite. Disagree with the idea but don’t name call, please.

One blogger responded to this angry person with sarcasm:

Sorry you had a bad principal at some point in your illustrious teaching career. I am sure that we principals all are exactly the same as that bad apple, just like all of your students are exactly the same. What names do you call the kids who disagree with you?

Of course, the response of the angry teacher, even more anger:

Sorry to offend your sense of decorum. God forbid you should take a look in the mirror, Dave. Your post is far more accusatory than mine. So much more superior. How is it up there?

Decorum ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

And spare me the appreciation nonsense.

If you are all so professional, why the terrible problems with education? Oh, that’s right, it’s the teachers and their inability to understand, or their fear of failure, or whatever else that certainly has nothing to do with you. It must be nice to be able to place blame on your subordinates.

Administrators should make sure I have paper, pencils, and the bills are paid.

Leave the teaching to the teachers.

It’s a tough world out there. Get over your need for decorum–on a blog–and hear us teachers. Talk to the substance. Don’t react to the tone. I am not a child, nor am I your student. Hear what I say, not how I say it. That might get us somewhere. When we are not heard, EVER, we tend to get testy. And administrators have some culpability here.

Your inability to hold both your contempt for my tone and understand the meaning of my words is an issue you ought to look at. If your so able, and smart, so professional, you should be able to do both.

I admitted my tone in my post. Did you not notice that? Don’t you see how your responses are non-responses? Is my tone your excuse for ignoring the substance? Why so sensitive?

The conversation in the comments goes back and forth like this with others chiming in on both sides. It’s a great microcosm of the stated and unstated conversations take place in our schools.

So what did I learn from this experience?

On one level it is a microcosm of the kinds of conversations going on in our schools all the time. We talk at each other…both sides…and not with each other.

Also, the conversation is a great example of the power of tone. If you are not speaking or listening from an ‘affective’ place of genuine openness, if you are not present to the other person, both cognitively and affectively…

…then it’s difficult to have a productive conversation.

The point of my post was that we all need to be more open and less judgmental. It’s ironic that a comment to the post was felt to be pompous and judgmental.

I guess it re-enforces my point that, regardless of the stated agenda of the meeting (or the blog post), or the words we speak….

…tone counts.



2 thoughts on “Tone Counts

  1. Pete, you are so right. The example you have used here makes it very obvious, if only it was as obvious when it was actually happening. This is something I continuously struggle with. When I am passionate about someting it comes across through my tone, so the other party reacts to my tone not to the subject. I aim to focus more on this in my interactions with others, both professionally and personally. Thank you for the insight.

  2. Claire,
    It has been a major focus in my development as a leader, too. It helped me to have a coach who worked with me on it; but if that is not possible for you, I also incorporated a few folks who I trusted in the process. I told them what I was working on and asked them to give me candid feedback when they sensed that my tone was getting in the way of the message.

    I asked them to do that afterwards not in front of others.

    Eventually, we worked out a way for them to let me know I was back to my old tricks while I was in the midst of them.

    Thanks Claire,

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