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It’s not what you say, but how you say it.  No doubt you’ve heard this statement before.  But how often do you really pay attention to your intonation when speaking with others?  Intonation is one of two parts in any message.  Intonation is part of the metamessage and delivers the actual meaning of what is being said.  The second part of the message is the strict, dictionary definition of each word used.  Each of us has a fine-tuned radar that picks up and pays particular attention to the intonation used within a message.

Has anyone ever repeated back to you what you said, only for you to say, a bit defensively, “that’s not what I said” even though more likely than not it was what youintended.  In this case it was the intonation you used that was received rather than the words.

An example we can consider are the words “Great Job!”  You’ve most likely heard this phrase in praise and with sarcasm.  These two simple words can be expressed in a vast variety of ways ranging from

  • the enthusiastic – engaging voice, wide open eyes and outstretched hands to
  • the positive – good vocal energy, with engaged eye contact to
  • the mediocre – with monotone vocals, occasionally making eye contact with little to no gestures to
  • the condescending – with disdainful vocals, looking down or away from, head nodding.

You not only hear the difference, but you can also see and feel the difference.

When training, I normally do this exercise with eight different “intonations” starting on the positive side focusing the examples on individuals in the class.  After the first two examples, participants say they feel pretty good, that I came across sincerely.  For the next few examples participants generally feel OK.  For the last two examples, the most negative in tone, participants universally feel a downer, not only those who were the focus of the comments, but all of the class participants feel the negativity.  That is called emotional contagiousness.

The point – we need to be aware not only of what we say, but how we say it.  Your intonation lets others know how you feel and what you are really thinking.  Pay attention to the details.  Not paying attention to the details means you may convey the message that is least desirable and does more harm than good.

Carpe diem,
James R. Dawson
Managing Partner, ADI Performance

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