Tone of Communication
Communicating Power as we Speak
We use several distinct styles of spoken communication and each one
communicates the power stance of the
relationship along with the semantics of
the message. In every communication there are two messages, one about the
semantics of the discussion, the other about the relationship of the
participants. The table below distinguishes between dialogue, discussion, debate,
delegation, dogma and other terms we use to describe spoken communications. Peers are equals and they collaborate using
It is the only symmetrical form of communication. The
other forms establish or reinforce asymmetrical, power-based relationships.
||A conversation between two or more
people. An exchange of ideas or opinions. Root: Dia Logus, “Through Words”
Dialogue requires both talk and silence to create an interweaving of ideas.
|We are peers, collaborating to
solve a problem we are facing together. Let’s work together to discover an
understanding. Your views are essential to solving the problem. Completely
open to new ideas — Cooperation.
Typical of the
best scientific inquiry and collaboration.“What is the
best design for our new product?”
||Consideration of a subject by a
group. Talk or writing in which the pros and cons of a subject are
considered. Root: same as Percussion, “ping pong,” back and forth, offense
||I am scoring points against your
arguments. Your point of view will eventually come around. Somewhat open to
new ideas — Consideration.
conversation that begins by expressing a point of view or suggesting a
solution, rather than stating a problem or need.
“May I bounce
my new design off of you?”
||To engage in argument by
discussing opposing points. Root: from debatre, to fight, contend, to
||I am right, you are wrong, your
way of thinking is incorrect, the facts you present are incorrect. Your
point of view is wrong. You need to submit to my better judgment. Not open
to new ideas — Contention.
debates: “I am clearly the best candidate.” “No, I am clearly the best
Development: “This is the best
can't afford to wait so long for you to build it.”
||To ward off an attack. Root: from défendere to ward off.
||Notice if the defense is primarily evidence based
or power based. An evidence based defense endorses the facts, a
power based one doubts the facts.
The earth is estimated to be approximately 4 billion years old based on the
following evidence gathered by geologist, paleontologists, and astronomers:
. . .
||Diverting attention. Root: Latin
distrahere, distract-, to pull away
||I don't care to respond to you and
you don't have the power to make me respond.
Bloviation, obfuscation, restating the question, changing the subject . . .
||To discard or reject. Root: dis- + mittere, to send.
||You are not worth engaging in
any further discussion. — Contempt.
How dare you ask.
If you don't even know that, I can't help you.
||To assign work and responsibility
to someone else. Root: from delegatus, to appoint.
||I have power and you don’t. What I
want and need are important, your needs are not. Why don’t you just keep
quiet or do it yourself — Control.
“I think it
would be great if we had a department picnic.”
“Great idea, why don’t you
”Development: “How do you expect
us to meet that deadline?”
That's what I hired you to figure out.”
||Not straightforward or candid;
insincere or calculating. Not genuine.
||You are not worth communicating
with honestly and genuinely. . . and we both know there is nothing you can
do about it.
The recorded message that repeats “Your call is important to us” as you
are kept on hold endlessly.
||Tension and synthesis of
opposites. Root: from Latin dialectica, logic, from Greek dialektikē, the art of debate
||Done best when wise, respectful,
and vigorous peers
stance of: my viewpoint and logic is as valid as yours.
This can be very useful to stimulate thinking and explore the creative
tension of naturally occurring conflicts, such as between speed and accuracy
or the aspirations of hope and the stubbornness of
||An authoritative order having the
force of law. Root: from dēcernere, to decide.
||I have chosen to exercise my
positional power and make this final decision.
Court judgments or executive decisions and pronouncements.
||a bitter, sharply abusive
denunciation, attack, or criticism Root: from Greek diatribē,
pastime, lecture, from diatrībein, to consume, wear away
||I know the Truth and I will
lecture you forcefully, self-righteously, and angrily until
||An authoritative principle,
belief, or statement of ideas or opinion, especially one considered to be
absolute truth. Root: dogma, that which one thinks true, a decree
||I have the power, you do not. This
is truth. Do this. Do not debate or discuss. Comply or else. There is no
other point of view. Completely closed to new ideas — Conformance,
“The earth is
the center of the universe.”
done it this way.”
Many other incomplete forms of communication fail to achieve
In addition to the power stance described above for each mode of
communication, our spoken and non-verbal communications often contain many other
We can respond with any of these styles:
- directly, responsively, and with confidence,
- directly, with hesitancy or doubt,
- directly, admitting we don't know,
- with sarcasm,
- seriously, solemnly,
- with a joke,
- with an insult,
- by changing the subject,
- with an attack,
- by shaming, blaming, or humiliating the victim,
- dishonestly, disingenuously, or insincerely,
- with a dismissal,
- with our full attention,
- by submitting to a demand,
- by rebelling from a demand
Each of the following response styles shifts the power stance and other dimensions of
- Statement; Provide Information
- Inquiry; Request Information
- Request action,
- Demand action,
- Exclaim emotion,
- Attentive or inattentive,
- Patient or Impatient,
- Interrupting or not,
- Believing or disbelieving,
- Interested or bored,
- Understanding or baffled
- Information response,
- Question for clarification,
- Question as a statement,
- Non-responsive, defensive
- rebellion, defiance
- Respectful or disrespectful
- Sharing a new insight
Meryl Runion uses the term “Poison Phrases” to describe how we often
antagonize people we communicate with while denying our personal
responsibility. Recently she took an
(unscientific) poll to identify
the ten most
offensive poison phrases. They are: 1) Shut up, 2) It’s not my job, 3)
What’s Your problem? 4) Whatever, 5) Bite me, 6) I’m just a clerk, 7)
If you say so, 8) I couldn’t care less, 9) I don’t care, and
10) I’m done with you. These are transparent attempts to artificially
inflate your status at the expense of the person you are offending. They are
examples of bullying and humiliation.
- “We need to use dialogue to focus on the collective problems of living
together in communities.” ~ Daniel Yankelovich
- “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”
Games People Play, by M.D. Eric Berne
How to Use Power Phrases to Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say,
& Get What You Want, by Meryl Runion
Fear, Sadness, Anger, Joy, Surprise, Disgust, Contempt,
Anger, Envy, Jealousy, Fright, Anxiety, Guilt, Shame, Relief, Hope, Sadness, Depression, Happiness,
Pride, Love, Gratitude, Compassion, Aesthetic Experience,
Joy, Distress, Happy-for, Sorry-for, Resentment, Gloating, Pride, Shame, Admiration, Reproach,
Love, Hate, Hope, Fear, Satisfaction, Relief, Fears-confirmed, Disappointment, Gratification,
Gratitude, Anger, Remorse,
power, dominance, stature, relationships