Can We Talk?
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Irshad Blog

In Arabic, Irshad means “guidance.” So go ahead — share your burning question, especially if it can lead to better conversations.


I’m a 10th grader who participated in your workshop, “How To Be Heard (Even By People Who Disagree With You).” You emphasized that we’re more likely to get a fair hearing from our Other if we leave them feeling respected than if we get in their face and demand to be listened to. But aren’t you tone policing? – Emily

You make “tone policing” sound like a bad thing! And I understand why. It’s unfair that people who come from marginalized communities often get dismissed because they’re “too emotional” — angry, aggressive, loud.

As an advocate of free speech, I support anybody’s right to take the tone that they choose. How we communicate is as much a part of free speech as whether and what we communicate. So I say with respect and affection: Flip out if you want to. It’s your Constitutional right.

But in that case, don’t expect a positive outcome. Because here’s what you need to understand: Tone affects whether your message receives a fair hearing. Or a hearing at all.

Chris Voss, a former top negotiator with the FBI, recently told MSNBC that adopting a civil tone “is a Jedi mind trick.” That’s because “your tone of voice impacts the other person’s neurocircuitry and actually causes a chemical change in their brain.” He cited the example of a late-night radio DJ who typically speaks softly and slowly in order to help the listener decompress after the hectic waking hours. That tone’s intentional. It’s almost hypnotic.

When Voss served with the FBI, he specialized in convincing kidnappers to return their captives. So he knows how easily we humans become frustrated with our Other, especially if we’re discussing people or topics we deeply care about. What he’s suggesting — that we adopt a gentle and deliberate tone to calm everybody down — isn’t easy.

But it’s necessary for making progress. Voss hammers home this point: “When you can just taste how good it’s going to feel to say something in a particular tone of voice, it’s wrong. Because you’re going to love it and the other side is going to feel slapped in the face, which guarantees that they will not collaborate with you.”

Now let me offer some good news, Emily. Tone isn’t an either/or proposition. What I mean is, I’m not saying that either you monitor your tone in every conversation or you prepare to go down in flames. First of all, every discussion doesn’t have to be a debate. There’s no need to “win” all the time, so don’t worry about checking your tone every minute of the day. As long as you don’t care about influencing the other person, let it all hang out, sister.

Moreover, even when you do care about influencing your Other, you can still take a break from the conversation, go to your friends, and unload to them in a caustic tone. Preserving our mental health sometimes requires us scream at the top of lungs about the issue at hand. Lean on your pals to “get” you when need to vent. After you’ve let off steam, return to your Other and pick up the conversation.

So, you see, you can approach tone through a liberating both/and lens rather than a suffocating either/or one.

Of course, all of this assumes that you want to make progress on the issue at hand. Not everybody does. Some people just want to feel self-righteous. That’s a legitimate choice, but then don’t blame the other side entirely for failing to understand the issue from your perspective. Because your own communication style is partly at fault.

I’ll leave you with a question that all agents of change should be asking ourselves: Am I committed to moving the needle or am I simply in this to feel superior? If the latter, then defund the tone police and let ‘er rip. But if the former, then you now know what to do — and why.