If you read the Wall Street Journal, perhaps you caught the story about an awkward email exchange between a consultant named Jill Campen and her boss, Marty Finkle. Campen sent Finkle a detailed email that outlined a strategy she wanted to implement, with his approval. Finkle replied with a single word: “Done.”
Wounded by the snippy reply, Campen stewed for half an hour before deciding she was too upset to reply by email. She called him and asked, “What is going on with you? ‘Done?’ What does that mean?” Her boss was surprised. He wasn’t upset, he was simply in a hurry to have the issue resolved and to clear his inbox for the day.
Campen showed insight that few of us in business have: she knew when not to use email. Chances are, you’re using email for the wrong things — and it can lead to a breakdown in relationships within your organization.
The Problem with Email
The short video “Why Email Starts Fights” explains the problems that emails (and text messages) can cause at work. The video explains the three aspects of effective communication: words, tone, and visuals. The great majority of meaning is carried in tone and visuals, but email and texting only convey words.
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Most of the message’s meaning is omitted from emails, and misunderstandings can easily occur. Without the non-verbal cues, your imagination fills in the blanks on its own. We rarely fill in those blanks with positive interpretations, and that leads to hurt feelings, damaged relationships, and poor business decisions.
Email is a helpful communication tool when it’s used in limited circumstances. Use email only when you need to convey facts or data — for example, when setting up a meeting or sharing sales numbers.
When you need to discuss emotional content or sensitive issues, opt for an in-person conversation or a phone call. Phone conversations reintroduce tone, and in-person dialogues provide tone and visual cues. And because the conversations are in real time, you won’t be needlessly stewing over a message between email volleys.
How to Deal with Upsetting Emails
What do you do if someone sends you an email or text message that upsets you? It’s important to resolve the matter in a healthy way that fosters a strong team. Follow these four best practices.
Take a break
It’s never a good idea to respond when your emotions are driving you. Anger triggers stress hormones, which decreases your communication and decision-making abilities. When you’re calmer, you can rationally plan the best response. Taking a break also gives you the distance to reconsider the email with a cooler head.
Give the benefit of the doubt
Recognize that you may have misinterpreted the message, and reread the email through an objective lens. Did you jump to conclusions? Did you read something into it that wasn’t actually there? Could the email be read with a different tone? What are the various possible meanings that you didn’t consider at first?
Be honest with yourself
If you’re reacting emotionally, the issue may not lie with the email at all. Perhaps your ego was threatened, or your own personal fears were triggered by an innocent phrase. Ask yourself what’s at the center of your emotional reaction. You may be surprised by what you find.
Be honest and open with the other person — in person
If you’re still hurt or confused by the email, it’s important to clear the air. Otherwise healthy teams will be impacted by hurt feelings that go unresolved. The health of your organization depends on your openness and honesty with others. Speak with the other person and humbly ask about the email.
Rather than accuse, own the possibility that you have misinterpreted the message. Say something like this: “Your last email surprised me. This is how I read it — am I misinterpreting anything?”
How strong is your organization? Take the Organizational Checkup to find out today!