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Tuning Our Instruments

April 12, 2010

“We’re just not compatible anymore” is a phrase often heard in counseling sessions. And often, as the dialogue deepens, the one speaking may come to a realization that even when and if they were compatible with their partner, that in itself may not be enough to sustain the relationship. A skilled listener though, may encourage the person to spend more time exploring some alternative ways of noticing the dynamics of the relationship. One of those ways, oddly enough, may be to check to see if one instrument in their personal orchestra is still in tune – the tone of their voice.

I haven’t tried this myself, but if you happen to have a drawer full of tuning forks laying about the house, you might give it a go. Line up a few with different frequencies in a tray full of sand. Then take another tuning fork with the same frequency as one of the others and strike it on the table. All but one of the forks in the tray will stand silent. The one with the same tone will begin to sing along with its mate.

One of the learnings from this little thought experiment is that all of the tuning forks are compatible. They all in some way “belong together”. Yet that alone is insufficient for an interesting outcome. The other learning for me is actually a bit more subtle.

When we initiate a conversation – whether in everyday life, or more intimate ones – it is much like the sound from that first tuning fork. And the tone of our voices is likely to garner a similar tone in response. Over time, we can slowly begin to limit the range of tones we use with each other, especially in our closest relationships. Or we may get into the habit of using certain tones with our partners, and other tones with our children, and still others with our friends.

So one important way to see beyond the compatibility questions in our relationships is to tune up our instruments, and return once again to using all the tones we have in the orchestra we call a self. You just might find that there is still more music to play together.

Some tuning tips:

  • Become curious about your own instrument – Who is it in tune with? When is it out of tune?
  • Notice if you habitually use particular tones in your voice with particular people in your life – Are you more often than not, terse with your partner, and more loving and nurturing to your kids? Or is it the other way around?
  • Practice taking a breath before trumpeting the feeling – How do you really feel in the particular moment? What do you hope to hear in response?
  • Listen to how others around you use their voices – How are they impacting the way you respond to them? What are some new ways to “change your tone?”
  • Finally, focusing on tone won’t change everything occurring in a relationship, but it just might open up possibilities for deeper dialogue and connection.

Edd Conboy, MS, MFT is Program Director of Council for Relationships’Avenue of the Arts office and a Senior Staff Therapist in Council for Relationships’ University City office. He can be reached at 215-382-6680 ext. 4313.