E-mail–Communications Tool or Trouble Maker?

Despite all I know and teach about communication and interpersonal skills, I’ve been guilty of sending (and regretting) an e-mail or text used to address a concern or frustration. I’ve banked on my reputation or what I thought was a good working relationship to fill in the gaps that I know e-mails can’t fill. I’ve also been on the receiving end of an e-mail sent to get my attention on an issue or to identify a problem area. It doesn’t feel good and it doesn’t do much to establish or maintain trust.

I know the excuses:  we are busy, working remotely and trying to be as efficient as possible. We incorrectly assume that we are just stating facts and the other person just hasn’t seen the light.  And, yes, we have all these great tools like e-mail, texts, tweets,, instant messaging, facebooking, blogging, etc.  If we have them, why don’t we use them to their fullest?  I’ve learned over time, though, that those excuses and all the tools NEVER justify the damage done from an ill-timed (inappropriately used) electronic communication.

Here are my personal tips to most effectively avoid or resolve conflict when it comes to using e-mail:

  • Don’t send emotionally charged e-mails when you are tired, or at the end of the      day, or at night from home when you’ve just finished a beer or glass of  wine. Just don’t EVER do it.
  • Resist the temptation to fire off an e-mail reply if someone else sends a nasty or  emotional one.
  • Take a deep breath and REALLY think about what you want to say…or what you really need.
  • Go visit the person.
  • Schedule a meeting and establish your needs and expectations for the future. I always feel better after the meeting than after that reactive e-mail.
  • Remember that an e-mail in your in-box is just a stimulus…you can      CHOOSE your response, including your timing.
  • Wait until things cool down.
  • If two e-mail exchanges don’t solve the problem or clarify a situation, pick up the phone and talk about it.  Just ask…”What did you mean by ….?” or “I was left confused by what you said, can you explain it in person?” When I do that, I usually find I jumped to the wrong conclusion or that someone wasn’t as upset as the e-mail made them sound.
  • Draft your e-mail AND save it.  Wait a day, re-read it nd THEN decide if you still want to press <send.>  I often ditch it or rethink my perspective.
  • Ask a trusted co-worker to read your e-mail and be honest with you.  Ask      yourself, is your intent to “hurt back” OR solve the problem without long term negative effects? If it’s the second goal, then schedule a meeting …for later.

Ok, once more…just pick up the phone and talk in person….use that draft e-mail as your script, if necessary.  If you can’t say the words out loud to a live person, then they should not be conveyed at all.

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