Why Emotional Tone is So Important in Communication

Oct 28, 2020

There are two human drives. One is connection and the other is aggression. Aggression here does not mean anger. It means initiative and energy, which are used in the service of goals.

Everything we do is either relational or goal-directed—or, ideally, both. Basically, we are “lovers and workers.”

We have relationships and we do things. We connect and we accomplish tasks. Care and drive. Be and do. Love and work. The love requires a positive relational tone and the work requires drive, expectations and discipline.

An integrated leader does both at the same time in a way where one affects the other. They provide a positive state of being and tone while aggressively accomplishing things with people. The problem comes when we do one without the other. When we are about people but are not giving them the boundaries that lead to aggressive accomplishment—things like structure, goals and measures of accountability — we fail them.

Lack of structure — a lack of clear boundaries—creates its own kind of stress. Think of a classroom full of kids with no supervision. It doesn’t take very long for them to get out of hand and to act out, often toward one another. When a good teacher walks in and says, “Okay class, straighten up and get to work,” they calm down and function a lot better. So, the “caring, people-oriented leader” who has no boundaries creates as much stress as the tyrant—just a different kind.

When you let your people and teams flounder without clear expectations, you are not helping their emotional brains. That is why personal relationships where one person is codependent and does not set limits on bad behavior are so stressful, so full of chaos or so destructive. Research shows that one of the key ingredients of successful group behavior is having clear expectations for the group.

But the opposite is also true. When leaders are only task-oriented, aggressively pursuing results with no focus on the emotional tone of their interactions, set off stress reactions in others. People’s brains freeze up. They don’t work well when under stress.

So the trick here is to give people the direction, structure, and accountability that drive good energy, but to do it in a way that does not create stress. And to do that, you have to watch your tone. You can give feedback without engendering fear and stress.