You might be smiling when you send an email but that could be lost in the words
By Karen Adamedes
The opportunities for misunderstandings, misinterpretations and conflict over email are many.
Without meaning too you can end up in the middle of a conflict on email that you have to work your way out of. One that you’re not even sure how it started in the first place or how it escalated to become a problem.
With most people receiving at least 100 emails a day at work – it’s easy to understand how quick messages, sent when you’re in a hurry, stressed or thinking about something else, may not be your (or someone else’s) best literary effort.
An email war does not serve any purpose or do anybody any good.
It just uses valuable time and threatens constructive working relationships.
For a start it’s not an efficient way to resolve an issue or seek a resolution to a business problem. And nobody comes out of a written email conflict with an enhanced business reputation – especially if it’s a public battle and there are lots of people copied or included on the email.
It can happen in a variety of ways:
You’ve sent off a quick email and it’s been misinterpreted. Something’s taken out of context or just not received in the manner it was meant in (you had your tongue firmly in your cheek and they didn’t realize) and with little effort you have a situation that you are now going to have to put some serious work into resolving.
There are more than enough challenges ensuring that what you mean is what people actually understood when you are talking to them. And that’s when you have the benefit of your body language, pitch and tone of voice to help convey what you mean. In writing it’s even harder! Something you write sounding one way in your head can be taken quite another on email.
Or someone is frustrated by a situation and fires off a message with half the world (well, it seems like it) included or cc’d on the message. Their reason may have been well intentioned (these are all the people who involved in the issue, they think) but what they actually do is create a messy situation that results in multiple emails and often confusion about who is doing what. Someone gets upset, a little bit terse and before you know it the emails are flying back and forth and a proverbial mountain has been made out of the molehill.
Or even worse (I think) is the person who sends emails and copies their manager or other ‘important’ people in order to get a response. This is a very heavy handed approach and akin to bullying. If nothing else it demonstrates that the person the email has been sent to isn’t trusted to do what has been asked. Or that the person sending it is too lazy to negotiate what they need without bring in the big guns!
What it often comes down to is that the person who has been copied often feels the need to weigh in on the issue, be directive or want explanations and you have more email havoc!
Whoever starts it or however you got involved (your fault or not) the trick is how to get out of the conflict, resolve the issue and ensure that relationships and reputations (particularly yours!) are not damaged.
Consider these options:
1. Take it off email
Often the best way to diffuse the situation is to take the issue off email. Call or if you’re co-located go to see the person involved.
You’ll have the advantage of being able to ask questions, get immediate answers and be able to respond appropriately in a very short time frame. You’ll also be able to use more communication tools like your voice tones and intonations to help resolve the situation.
Speaking directly with the person will help you understand where they are coming from and / or assist you reinforce or position what you are saying.
An actual conversation can really help take the heat out of a situation that is about to implode on email. A little bit of gentle humor can work wonders in a conversation. On email it often doesn’t work at all.
Taking the time to making contact offline also shows that you have prioritized the issue and are concerned about their position by taking the time, interest and energy to make a call. It is usually well worth the effort. And if a 5 minute phone call saves 5 emails back and forth in all probability it’s going to be a lot faster!
Talk to the key person (not a committee).
The situation is going to dictate who is the best person for you to talk to about an issue. If an email is only between you and one other person – then they’re the one you call – easy!
But if there are multiple people involved decide who you should deal with to resolve the issue the fastest and without putting any noses out of joint. If your manager is involved it can be well worth speaking with them for their insights or counsel. It may be another senior stakeholder that has the delegation to make the required decision. If it’s not going to cause more harm than it fixes – escalate the issue directly to them.
Don’t sacrifice speed for making sure you don’t get anyone offside! Depending on the situation it may be that a quick call to one of the people involved to find out the information you need or agree on the resolution is needed before you make the call to your manager/stakeholder.
If there are delays in getting a response or the answer you need I would make a call to the senior person and let them know why you’re calling, what you are doing to resolve the issue and exactly when you will be back to them with more information.
Engaging in an email war of words with multiple people cc’d only asks for trouble. And when I say trouble I mean multiple emails, opinions from those who aren’t decision makers and more work. Not to mention some aggravation for yourself!
And you don’t need an audience whilst you resolve a conflict or a misunderstanding.
Make direct contact to resolve an email issue.
If you do need to respond by email:
2. Be clear. Crystal clear.
There are some circumstances (time zones, availability etc.) where the issue has to stay on email.
Be really clear in what you write; don’t say anything that can be subject to misinterpretation.
Choose your words carefully.
Ask someone to proof read your response to make sure that your meaning is obvious.
3. Take the emotion out
Don’t reply to an email when you are angry or emotional.
Go for a walk, do something else and if at all possible, leave it until the next day before you respond. Angry exchanges back and forth will ignite, not resolve, a situation.
Choose words that are factual and positive and reinforce that you are seeking a resolution to the issue.
4. Acknowledge the other person
Thank the person for their email and succinctly paraphrase your understanding of what they have said.
If you have interpreted what they meant properly – acknowledging their position is respectful.
But there’s a chance (it may be remote, but there is a chance) that you have misunderstood what they meant. Checking your understanding will confirm that you are at least talking about the same thing!
5. Remove the cc’s
If you do need to respond by email it’s better if you can do it without an audience. Whoever has been copied is likely to have opinions or want to become involved – which just adds complexity to the resolution of the issue.
Communicate with the other party involved directly. Once you’ve achieved the outcome you can then go back to the cc’s and let them know the outcome. Most will be relieved that the problem is solved and that they haven’t had to be subject to multiple emails.
6. Manage expectations
If there isn’t going to be a fast resolution send an email letting all those involved know what is going on, who is doing what and when they should expect to know when the issue is resolved.
You’ll be seen as professional, the emails will be reduced and most importantly everyone can get on with business.
7. Follow up
Every time I suggest taking an email off line by calling or going to see the person involved I get comments like “but I need an email trail” or “there won’t be a record of who said what”.
Which is often true.
But I think it’s often used as an excuse to stay behind the safety of a keyboard rather than have to have a tough conversation. And unfortunately some organizational cultures require that you ‘cover your back’ by having proof of everything that happens.
The way around this is to send a follow up email after any offline conversations or agreements. For example, “Just a quick note to confirm our agreement…. ” or ” A short note to thank you for helping to resolve…”
This provides another chance to confirm the outcome, reinforce your professionalism and gives you a record of what was discussed or agreed.
George Clemenceau (French Prime Minister during World War 1) once said, “It’s far easier to make war than peace”. So true.
When it comes to email I reckon, It’s far easier to take the time to resolve a conflict than deal with the consequences!
The Career Tip To Go: Don’t play Email Wars – there aren’t any winners. Find ways to resolve the issue and maintain relationships.
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