In just about every group conflict I’ve witnessed or participated in, I’ve seen some version of this happen:
- Some people will speak up about something
- There will be a conversation that gets heated
- Someone else will be very uncomfortable with the fact that conflict is happening (despite somewhat sympathizing with the people who are speaking up)
- And they will say something like, “Wow, I don’t like this tone. Can we all try to respect each other a bit more?”
And I think part of this is that people who aren’t speaking up really often have no idea how hard it is. It looks much easier than it is.
It’s hard, and it’s scary, to say something that you know will result in conflict. It’s hard to phrase things well, it’s hard and sometimes impossible to stand your ground in a way that makes everyone feel respected. Especially if you don’t have a lot of practice.
It’s possible that people who are speaking up really are being inappropriately or counterproductively disrespectful. That is a real thing that actually happens. But it’s also possible that people are doing the best they can, because speaking up is really hard and there’s often no way to do it which won’t be at least somewhat painful or awkward.
If you’re not in the habit of speaking up about anything other than the tone used by others when they speak up, it’s entirely possible that tone isn’t the real problem. It’s possible that the problem is that you haven’t learned through experience how hard it is to speak up, and how complicated of a skill it is to learn.
That is not always the problem, but it’s usually a possibility worth considering in that kind of situation.
If you’re having an ongoing conflict
And you’re often criticized for tone, or the way you phrase things, or similar concerns
And no one who disagrees with your position is ever criticized for tone
Then tone is probably not the real issue.
Tone is important. When you say things the right way, it can increase the number of people who are willing to listen to you.
But that only goes so far. No matter how good you are at framing things, some things that need to be said will upset people who feel entitled to be comfortable. And, when you upset people who feel entitled to comfort, they will lash out at you. This is not your fault; it is theirs. Tone has its limits.
Also, getting tone right is really hard. No one starts out good at tone; it’s a very difficult skill that you can only learn with practice. And the only way to get practice is to spend a lot of time talking to people about controversial things. Which means that, in order to get good at tone, you’re going to have to spend a lot of time talking about these things while you’re still bad at tone.
People who mean well and genuinely want you to be heard understand this, and will encourage you to keep speaking up and keep working on your skills at speaking up effectively. People who want you to shut up about the things you’re talking about will try to make you feel horrible about your tone and convince you that your tone means you have no right to say anything.
Sometimes, when people say that you should be more careful about tone so that you can be heard, what they really mean is “I don’t want to hear that, shut up and say something else I’m willing to listen to”.
Don’t believe those people, and don’t shut up. The most important thing is to keep talking. If you are bad at tone, some people will refuse to hear you. If you are good at tone, some people will still refuse to hear you. If you say nothing for fear of getting the tone wrong, no one will hear you.
Shutting up won’t get you heard. Speaking up might.
If you speak about injustice and privileged people get offended, people will condescendingly explain to you that things are easier to hear if you are nice, and that you are more likely to convince people if you speak to them respectfully.
This is true, and often important to keep in mind – but people who say that to you in a conversation about injustice are usually missing the point.
They’re ignoring something fundamentally important about addressing injustice: Sometimes, the goal is not to convince privileged people to treat others better. Sometimes, the goal is to convince marginalized people that the way they are being treated is unjust and that it’s possible to resist.
There can be a tradeoff between saying things in a way it is easy for victims to hear and saying things in a way that it is easy for privileged people to hear. Sometimes, no matter which way you say it, upsetting one group or the other is inevitable.
When you choose to say things in a way that is easy and comfortable for marginalized people to hear, you are likely to upset privileged people who are used to being addressed deferentially in these matters. And they will make their displeasure known, and other people will lecture you about being kind and building bridges.
When you choose to say things in a way that is easy and comfortable for privileged people to hear, you are likely to hurt marginalized people who are accustomed to having their feelings disregarded. They are unlikely to complain, because complaining rarely helps and often invites retaliation. When you choose to make your words comfortable for privileged people at the expense of marginalized people, no one will lecture you about kindness, tone, or saying things in a way people can hear. It will not occur to them that it matters how the victims of injustice feel in conversations about injustice.
This dynamic will be invisible to those who lecture about tone and kindness, but it should not be invisible to you. Do not let others pressure you into disregarding the feelings of marginalized people for the sake of the powerful.