Tone and Frequency: Not Just for Musicians

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“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  -Maya Angleou

I think that for many of us Maya Angleou’s quote rings true.  I know that for me it certainly does. 

For example, I don’t remember exactly what my 5th grade teacher said to me that made me feel like I was worthless.  But I clearly remember her making me believe that I would never amount to anything. 

On the flip side, I can scarcely recall anything my 11th grade history teacher told me.  Yet, I know that she believed that I had excellent academic promise, encouraged me to apply to top universities and helped me believe that I had the tools to be successful. 

To this day, when I think of my fifth grade teacher I cringe.  And I cannot help but to feel warmth and gratitude for my eleventh grade teacher.

But my feelings and personal experiences are backed up by scientific data.

The Yale School of Management recently conducted a study on how tone affects the performance of employees.  In the experiment, student volunteers were put into four teams to do a series of business tasks with the goal of earning money for an imaginary company.   The “manager” visited each group giving them an identical set of instructions.  The only variable was the tone of the instructions.  There was “cheerful enthusiasm,” “serene warmth,” “depressed sluggishness” or “hostile irritability.”   

It probably does not take a PhD from Yale to guess which two groups earned the most money in the game:  the “cheerful enthusiasm” and the “serene warmth” teams, of course.  But perhaps what was more surprising, the tone also influenced each groups feeling after they ended the game.  The cheerful enthusiasm and serene warmth groups all scored significantly higher than the other two groups on measures of self-esteem in a post-test. The tone in which they were communicated actually not only boosted performance but also their sense of worth.

So just how positive does a coach need to be in order to be efficacious and encouraging? 

No need to guess!  A researcher in Michigan, Marcial Losada, quantified the ratio of positive to negative interactions that lead to the best performance.  Losada developed a mathematical model based on over a decade of research on high versus low performance teams.  He discovered the magic number is 2.9013, the ratio of positive to negative interactions to make a team successful.   Roughly three positive comments or experiences are necessary to discount one negative event.  If the ratio drops below this 3:1 ratio,   performance will decrease significantly.  And, in fact, if the ratio is closer to 6:1, teams then do their very best work.

So, if we know instinctively from personal experience and rationally based on scientific data that an encouraging tone and frequent positive interactions are not only more pleasant but also more effective in our personal interactions, why do so many coaches scream at, belittle and intimidate to get results?

I think they do it for a few reasons.  

First, many times when adults yell at kids it is really themselves with whom they are frustrated.  They can’t teach the skill or break through the fear of the athlete.  They’ve lost patience with a snarky teen.  Coaches are human.  There are going to be times that they lose their cool, but better self-regulation of their our emotions is necessary if we are to work with kids.  

Second, many times yellers lack other tools in their tool kit.  All they have is a hammer, so that is what they use: a hammer. They have not developed other skills or techniques to communicate their passion or frustration.  They have not developed their own ability to delay gratification, demanding results immediately.

Next, there is the “it worked for me and I turned out ok” excuse.  Their coach yelled at them, and they are fine.  In fact, some believe the verbal beat downs made them successful.  Still others believe this is just simply how sports must be.

On the flip side of that belief is another reason coaches belittle: some think that complimenting their athletes will cause them to become lax in their work ethic or over confident in their ability.  In other words that they will become “soft,” which ironically, is just the exact opposite of the Yale findings and the Losada ratio.

Then, some think that coaching is synonymous with criticizing.  As if they are not effectively teaching unless they are consistently pointing out what the athlete is doing wrong.  Data from a quantitative analysis of perhaps the greatest sports coach ever John Wooden strongly suggests otherwise.  During the 1974–75 season, a  season often judged as the best of Wooden’s career, the researchers took copious notes on Wooden’s feedback to players during practices.  Of the 2,500 utterances the researchers recorded,about 6 percent were praises and 6 percent were reproofs. About 75 percent ofeverything Wooden said was recorded by the researchers as instructional.

Finally, in the short run, yelling actually  produce quick results. Shaming, bullying, scaring and intimidating children can cause them to perform well in the short term (in order to escape punishment), and then the adult uses this as evidence that screaming works.

But reliance on negative managing techniques leads children and teams to be less effective and to feel badly about themselves in the long run.  In working with or raising kids we constantly need to remind ourselves that the long run is what matters. 

Tone and frequency are not just musical concepts, they are indispensable ideas in encouraging people to perform and thrive.