Communication Skills

Teaching Adolescents About Tone of Voice

Explicit instruction can counter misconceptions that middle school students often have about what’s being conveyed through speech. 

August 3, 2022
SDI Productions / iStock

We need each other. When human beings are struggling, we rely on one another through the gift of our very presence. Having the right person at your side can be incredibly comforting. But throw the wrong person in the mix, and things go haywire.

What is it about our presence that can be calming or irritating or unsafe to another? We read each other’s faces and postures and observe gestures while we listen for tones of voice that cue safety or danger. This is a human superpower.

When we have awareness of how we can deeply connect with others or unintentionally pull away from those who activate negative emotions, we begin to understand the power of relational contagion, or how our emotions are contagious, while sharing our authenticity when we need one another. We can literally feel how others are feeling through neurons in the brain called mirror neurons.

Our tone of voice can tell the truth, and our students know this, no matter the words we speak. Think of your tone of voice as a personalized vocal fingerprint, which allows others to know how you are feeling and sense any situation as safe or threatening.

Misreading Tone of Voice

Our tones also carry significance because they project who we are as people. There are people with a consistent sarcastic tone, a warm caring tone, or a skeptical tone. Over time, these various tones can project their personality.

Human beings have a negative brain bias; in states of heightened stress, we are quick to pick up on negative tones, and during the adolescent years we may read more neutral tones as negative. It’s critical that we be aware of our tone of voice, checking in with ourselves before we speak, especially if we notice growing irritation or anger in our nervous system.

If a student is angry or defiant, functioning from his or her survival response, we can easily and quickly escalate one another. The more exhausted we are, the less tolerable we become. We often assume that our students understand how tones of voice, postures, and gestures impact others, but these nonverbal skills of communication may need to be taught, discussed, and shared in a co-regulatory experience with a trusted adult.

In the adolescent years, when big emotions are prevalent, students may overreact to an ordinary experience or read someone’s expression as negative rather than neutral. Providing space and time to discuss the nuances of nonverbal communication helps grow the social skills that are often underdeveloped in childhood and adolescent years.

Nonverbal communication can be cultural communication that we misinterpret or misunderstand as we carry a variety of neurodivergent and culturally divergent communication styles into our schools and classrooms.

For example, eye contact is not a universally respectful gesture. Many cultures view eye contact in different ways and not through a White Eurocentric lens. Vocal tones, postures, and gestures can also be misunderstood through a lens that is not representative of how an educator might perceive a child’s or adolescent’s culture.

Direct Instruction With Tone-of-Voice Exercises

Discussing how our tone of voice invites people into our lives or unintentionally pushes them away is a critical practice for students and staff to work through together, sharing realistic experiences while providing feedback to one another.

This could take place during a morning or afternoon gathering, at the beginning or end of a class or school day, or when there has been a disruptive incident, and we have an opportunity to share and repair. There are engaging ways to help students and ourselves understand the importance of our tone of voice and how it relates to others.

Here are a few examples to try out with one another:

A. Share the same sentence or phrase with a calm, angry, and then sad tone.

  • Please share that with everyone.
  • What happened to you?
  • Follow me.
  • I don’t know.
  • What do you mean?
  • I don’t understand.

B. Examine angry and sad tones. Share what you notice about someone’s tone of voice when they are angry. How does their voice change? How can you tell when a friend is sad? What happens to their tone of voice?

C. Discuss insights you gain solely from a person’s voice. When you hear someone’s voice but you cannot see them, how hard or easy is it to know how they are feeling? Why?

D. Take a deep dive into the causes of misunderstandings. Have there been times when you assumed how you knew a family member, friend, or classmate was feeling or thinking but you were wrong? What did you misunderstand?

As we think about the power of our tone of voice, we need to understand that we also communicate through sounds called vocal bursts. These are sounds like oh!, huh?, and hmm. They are communicated and understood across cultures—even across our entire species.

Vocal bursts have been aligned with 24 emotions, and the research is fascinating. This study identifies and maps the 24 emotions as well as the aligned vocal bursts first researched by Alan Cowen and his colleagues while he was working at Stanford.

In conclusion, we are traditionally word focused. We pay more attention to our words than how they are received and interpreted. Relationships grow stronger when we become intentional and aware of our superpower—the tone of voice, gestures, and postures that lie beneath our words.

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Filed Under

  • Communication Skills
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • 6-8 Middle School

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