Tuning into Feeling Tones: Emotions Beneath Words

By Adam J. Pearson

Image: “Body Language” by xDarQax


You’ve probably had this experience. You’re talking to someone and their words seem to be saying something, but their body language is saying something totally different. You may have even seen this tendency in yourself.

  • She’s saying “I’m fine,” but you get the sense that she’s furious.
  • He’s saying “I can do this, no problem,” but you intuit that he’s really afraid and doubting himself.
  • She’s saying “I feel wonderful,” but you feel that she’s on the verge of bursting into tears.
  • He’s saying “I’m so happy for you,” but you sense an undercurrent of resentment and jealousy.
  • She’s saying “I totally want to do this,” but you feel that she cringes at the thought and sees it as a burden.
  • He’s saying “I’ll do anything for you,” but you feel that he’s got an agenda of getting into your pants.

Sound familiar? When we communicate, we send a message for another person to receive. Part of communication involves speaking words to convey a conscious message to the other person. However, we don’t just send a verbal message; we also send a nonverbal message at the same time. Our words say one thing, but our body language conveys a message about our real feelings at the same time.

Communication theorists sometimes call this unconscious communication of feelings subcommunication because it underlies our conscious communication through the things we say. Our words may seem to say that we feel one thing, but we can sometimes subcommunicate completely different feelings.

The message that we nonverbally subcommunicate about what we are really feeling is what I call a feeling tone.

Image: “Joy” by Aubrey Joy

Defining Feeling Tones

I define a feeling tone in the following way:

A feeling tone is the overall emotional quality or ‘tone’ that we subcommunicate to others when we speak to them.  It’s the message that we subconsciously send to others about what we are really feeling regardless of what our words seem to say.

Most of the time, we convey feeling tones unconsciously. A feeling tone is a kind of overall impression of feeling a particular emotion that we convey through our voice’s tone, cadence, and timbre, through our facial expressions and the microexpressions that flash across our face, and through our body language. We may consciously try to give a particular impression, but the feeling tone of what we are really feeling tends to come through anyway.

To illustrate this idea, think of a dancer at an audition who seems to be conveying confidence through what she says, but is actually feeling quite nervous. “I’m ready!” she says, but her legs are trembling, her fingers are shaking, and her voice doesn’t quite sound as confident as she would like. She communicates a verbal message of being confident and prepared, but she subcommunicates a feeling tone of being totally nervous. Perhaps, like me, you’ve been in a job interview in which you tried your best to convey competence and confidence, but actually subcommunicated a worried feeling tone much like that of our nervous dancer. Sometimes our feelings tones betray us.

If you’ve ever caught someone in a lie, you might have noticed the difference between verbal communication and subcommunicated feeling tones. “I didn’t go out drinking, honest. I was at Mark’s house playing videogames!” says the teenage boy who was indeed out drinking until 4 in the morning. His words sound so convincing, but his jittery movements, shifty glances, and the way he keeps gulping betray him. He can feel his heart racing and his mouth going dry. Sometimes words lie while bodies tell the truth. Only the best actors and the greatest pathological liars and sociopaths can fake feeling tones. In most of us, the truth comes through even if we don’t want it to.

Image: “Water Drop Collision” by B W Photography

Do Feeling Tones and Verbal Messages Always Clash?

From these examples, we might wonder if feeling tones and verbal messages are always at odds. The answer, thankfully, is no. When we are being authentic and honest, there is no clash between what we say and the feeling tone that we subcommunicate. In fact, this is true for most of the communication in which we regularly engage. When you surprise your loved one with her favourite dessert and her eyes are lighting up, she’s smiling, and she’s wanting to jump into your arms saying “thank you! this is so sweet!,” her words and her feeling tone are clearly in perfect harmony. They’re saying the same thing.

Authentic people tend to communicate most if not all of the time in this way. What they say and the feeling tone they subcommunicate are totally aligned. We all know people like this. They are the people you feel you can trust and that aren’t going to feed you nonsense if you ask them for an opinion. In fact, the people we tend not to trust are those whose words, actions, and feeling tones are often radically different; they say one thing, but do another. Manipulative people often give us a feeling of being “creepy” because we unconsciously pick up on the difference between their feeling tone and what they are saying. The falseness of the words betrays the truth of their actions.

If we want to be authentic, then our goal is to align our feeling tone and our words as much as possible. It’s not always easy to do this, of course; who hasn’t felt the need to reach for a comforting white lie once in a while? However, as we all know, carrying lies and putting on a false front is exhausting. We don’t want to live life behind a fake mask. We’d rather be free to be ourselves, share our real thoughts, and express our real feelings. That’s what authenticity is all about. And that means being aware of your feeling tones and how they diverge or harmonize with what you say to people.

Image: “Empathy” by Amy Kidd Photography 

Why Do Feeling Tones Matter?

Feeling tones matter because when we become sensitive to them, we get a fuller, richer view of the people we interact with on a daily basis and become more aware of our own feelings as well.

Feeling tones can teach us things about ourselves. If you learn to be sensitive to your own feeling tones, you may discover unconscious feelings you didn’t even know were there. For example, I once consciously thought that I could totally handle a job my boss was asking me to do, but the feeling tone I heard when I said “sure, I’ll do it” sounded fearful. My feeling tone revealed to me that I wasn’t quite so sure of my ability to do the job as my words seemed to suggest.

Being aware of your own feeling tones can also reveal to you when you’re being authentic and when you’re being inauthentic or involuntarily sabotaging yourself. If you watch your feeling tones when you talk, you can monitor the authenticity of your communication. If your feeling tones are in line with your words, you’ll notice. If they aren’t, you can ask yourself: why not? Why is this disconnection here? Am I trying to be deceptive or am I trying to avoid some feelings? Why are my words and actions not lining up with what I’m really feeling? There’s no need to judge yourself if you catch yourself being inauthentic, but it can be helpful to notice it as a way of delving into your true motives and feelings. The more aware we are of our true motives and feelings, the less likely we are to sabotage ourselves without even realizing what we are doing.

Monitoring the feeling tones of others can be useful for a number of reasons. One reason is that it builds social intelligence; the more you can tune into the feeling tones of other people, the more you can relate to what they are really feeling. This can make you more sympathetic. Consider, for example, the case of a lady who seems to be lashing out at people. Her words are saying “you’re not doing this right, why can’t everyone pull their weight?” but her feeling tone is saying: “I’m feeling overwhelmed.” If you’re just focusing on the words, you might be tempted to lash out at her. However, if you see the feeling beneath the words, it’s a lot easier to speak to her in a more caring way.

Being aware of feeling tones in other people can also sometimes help you see through lies and deception and make choices about your life. If you recognize the truth of a situation through the feeling tones someone is communicating rather than the false words that they are saying, then you can be less likely to be taken in by an attempt to fool you. If your boss seems to be promising a promotion “soon,” but her feeling tone suggests that she has no intention of doing it and is being insincere, then you might be less likely to wait around and more willing to consider other options. Attending to feeling tones gives you more information and having more information gives you a wider basis on which to make decisions.

How Should We Use What We Learn Through Observing the Feeling Tones of Others?

I’ve already suggested some of the possible applications of the knowledge we gain by being mindful of feeling tones. We can become better listeners, be more likely to see through deception, make more informed decisions, and learn things about ourselves that we can use to grow. However, there is one final application that I want to touch on. Becoming aware of feeling tones in others can help us cultivate forgiveness and compassion.

If I see that a person whose words and actions seem to be lashing out at others is really expressing a feeling tone of feeling hurt and afraid, then I can have a much easier time of forgiving what the person seems to be doing and saying. As I tune into the true feelings beneath the words and actions, I can let the surface expressions of those feelings go. Of course, boundary-setting and accountability are important, but so is forgiveness. Forgiveness frees us from holding on to the past and on to blame. When we forgive others, we forgive ourselves; we let go of what was holding us back and keeping us stuck and we release the other person and ourselves simultaneously. Forgiveness is liberating and tuning in to feeling tones makes it easier to forgive.

Tuning into feeling tones can also help us be more empathetic and compassionate with others. Think of a man who is yelling at you, but is really just frustrated for reasons that have nothing to do with you. Think of a child who seems to be trying to get attention by making a mess, but is really just calling out for others to make her feel loved and important. The more you can tune into the feeling tones that people are conveying, the more you can connect with their true feelings, with where they are truly coming from. And the more you do that, the easier it becomes to relate to them with kindness, caring, consideration, and patience.

How do We Become More Aware of Feeling Tones?

You may be wondering: alright, so it’s valuable to learn to tune into feeling tones, but how do we do it? We do it by becoming more aware of nonverbal communication and body language because the totality of our body language when we communicate subcommunicates our feeling tone as a general impression. As a result, to hone in on feeling tones, when we speak and when others speak, we don’t only focus on words. We can practice noticing:

  • proximity: how close is the person standing to us? Is their body facing us or aware from us?
  • fidgeting: is the person fidgeting, checking their watch, or making small movements as if they want to leave? Or do they seem fully absorbed, planted and like they’re exactly where they want to be at the moment?
  • facial expressions: what do the eyes, eyebrows, mouth, and overall face seem to be expressing? What feeling does their dominant expression seem to be suggesting? Is there a flash of some other apparent feeling that comes over their face before their face settles into another expression (that’s called a microexpression)?
  • voice tone: do they sound relaxed, or agitated? Are they speaking fast or slowly? Are they pausing a lot or speaking smoothly? Are they hesitating or answering right away? Does their voice sound honest or like its hiding something? Is their sincerity or sarcasm in the voice? Does it suggest seriousness or humour?
  • head position: is their head upright and facing you? are they playfully or flirtatiously smiling while tilting their head? or are they tilting their head with a puzzled expression as if confused? Are they lowering their head in a way that signals shame, embarrassment, or sadness? Are they raising their chin in a way that suggests pride, condescension, or aggression? Is their head nodding as if in agreement with what they or you are saying, or shaking their head while they are affirming something, suggesting they are lying?
  • eye movements: are they avoiding eye contact? Are they holding it confidently? Is there a sly look in the eyes or a straightforward one? Are they batting their eyelashes flirtatiously? Are the eyes shifting or looking away avoidantly as if hiding something?
  • mirroring: are you or the other person mirroring the other’s movements? If so, this is a sign that you, the other person, or both is trying to consciously build rapport.
  • arm position: are the arms open or closed (note: closed arms don’t always signal a closed-off social stance; they could just hiding a stain on their shirt)? are they stroking their chin or trying to hide behind their hands?
  • hand gestures: Are their fingers fidgeting? Are they continually reaching out towards you as if trying to convince you or get your approval? Are they making big movements suggesting passion and interest in what they’re discussing?
  • eyebrows: are the eyebrows furrowed as if concentrating, stressed, or confused? Are the eyebrows raising in disbelief, joy, or disagreement?
  • overall body position: are they spreading out as if confident in their right to take up space? Are they cringing and trying to look small?

There are many books on body language available. However, it is worth noting that reading body language is not an exact science. A girl who has her armed crossed might not be closed off from the discussion; she might just be cold. A man who keeps adjusting his glasses might not be nervous; they might just be too loose for his face. As a result, it’s helpful to take into account the whole picture of body language that the person is presenting to you rather than just focusing on one particular detail. The feeling tone comes through not through a particular part, but holistically, through the cumulative effect of all of the person’s body language, facial expressions, and voice.

Final Thoughts

In short, becoming aware of feeling tones can deepen the way we relate to others and the way we relate to ourselves. The more we become mindful of what we and others are subcommunicating, the more we can tune in, connect, and respond to the core truth of the situation rather than the surface appearances that seem to be being conveyed. We can become more authentic, more compassionate, and more forgiving if we use the information we get from feeling tones wisely. They hold the power to widen the scope of our vision and link us more deeply to one another, and isn’t that what we really want?

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