Like many of you, I subscribe to some private email discussion groups. One of mine is several years old, and includes lots of people who've been using email for about 25 years. Although they're sophisticated about email, they're struggling, as I write this, with a hot controversy. Some messages have been very personal and hurtful. How can this group, which is so experienced with email, get itself into such a fix? And what can we do when otherwise responsible people get caught up in heated email debate?
When we communicate, we can't control how other people interpret our communications. We send whatever we send, and people receive what they receive, and we can't guarantee congruence of sent to received. Neither sender nor receiver is wholly responsible. No amount of modifying one's tone, or volume, or topic can get around this completely.
Email is especially vulnerable to this problem. We write it quickly and we read it quickly. Most of us are good readers (if we actually read the whole message) but, alas, most of us aren't such great writers. Accidents are inevitable.
Suggestions that people take more care might help a bit, but for problematic cases, I've never seen the take-more-care tactic work over the long term in email.
Here are three things you can do:
- Avoid TUI (Typing Under the Influence)
- Adrenaline is a dangerous drug. If an especially hurtful or maddening message gets your adrenaline pumping, leave the keyboard at once. Do not send email. Do not pass Go. Get up, wander around, go work out, or do something physical to work off the hormone. This is simple biology.
- Recognize that some messages need no reply
- You can't always tell
whether your correspondent
actually intended to hurt you
or was just out of control
- Some messages are meant to hurt, and some are hurtful by accident. The trouble is that you can't always tell whether your correspondent actually intended to hurt you or was just out of control (TUI). Once you recognize this, you can decide not to reply to the more outrageous messages. Most of your colleagues have the good sense to recognize your silence as grace.
- Adopt a "Take-It-Outside" norm
- In the Wild West, people had fistfights and gunfights indoors. Or at least they did in the movies. We don't have to do that in email. In email, we can agree that if two people get going at each other, and if they can't avoid TUI, then someone will ask them to take it outside, where they can continue, or not, wherever they like. It's best to adopt this norm before trouble breaks out.
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More articles on Emotions at Work:
- Demanding Forgiveness
- Working together under stress, we do sometimes hurt each other. Delivering apologies is a skill critical
to repairing those hurts and maintaining our relationships.
- Begging the Question
- Begging the question is a common, usually undetected, rhetorical fallacy. It leads to unsupported conclusions
and painful places we just can't live with. What can we do when it happens?
- Responding to Threats: I
- Threats are one form of communication common to many organizational cultures, especially as pressure
mounts. Understanding the varieties of threats can be helpful in determining a response that fits for you.
- Handling Heat: I
- Heated exchanges in meetings are expensive to both the organizational mission and to the careers of
the meeting's participants. Preventing them — or dealing with them when they happen — is
everyone's job. But what can you do when they persist?
- First Aid for Wounded Conversations
- Groups that meet regularly sometimes develop patterns of tense conversations that become obstacles to
forward progress. Here are some ideas for releasing the tension.
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- And on October 25: Workplace Memes
- Some patterns of workplace society reduce organizational effectiveness in ways that often escape our notice. Here are five examples. Available here and by RSS on October 25.
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