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:
- Can You Hear Me Now?
- Not feeling heard can feel like an attack, even when there was no attack, and then conversation can
quickly turn to war. Here are some tips for hearing your conversation partner and for conveying the
message that you actually did hear.
- Handling Heat: II
- Heated exchanges in meetings can compromise both the organizational mission and the careers of the meeting's
participants. Here are some tactics for people who aren't chairing the meeting.
- Preventing Toxic Conflict: II
- Establishing norms for respectful behavior is perhaps the most effective way to reduce the incidence
of toxic conflict at work. When we all understand and subscribe to a particular way of treating each
other, we can all help prevent trouble.
- Compulsive Talkers at Work: Power
- Compulsive talkers are unlikely to change their behavior in response to your polite (or even impolite)
requests. In this second part of our exploration, we consider the role of power — both personal
- Compulsive Talkers at Work: Peers I
- Our exploration of approaches for dealing with compulsive talkers now continues, with Part I of a set
of suggestions for what to do when a peer interferes with your work by talking compulsively.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 27: Brainstorming and Speedstorming: II
- Recent research into the effectiveness of brainstorming has raised some questions. Motivated to examine alternatives, I ran into speedstorming. Here's Part II of an exploration of the properties of speedstorming. Available here and by RSS on February 27.
- And on March 6: A Pain Scale for Meetings
- Most meetings could be shorter, less frequent, and more productive than they are. Part of the problem is that we don't realize how much we do to get in our own way. If we track the incidents of dysfunctional activity, we can use the data to spot trends and take corrective action. Available here and by RSS on March 6.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.