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:
- Your Wishing Wand
- Wishing — for ourselves, for others, or for all — helps us focus on what we really want.
When we know what we really want, we're ready to make the little moves that make it happen. Here's a
little user's guide for your wishing wand.
- Fill in the Blanks
- When we conceal information about ourselves and our areas of responsibility, we make room for others
to speculate. Speculation is rarely helpful. It's wise to fill in the blanks.
- 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.
- Human Limitations and Meeting Agendas
- Recent research has discovered a class of human limitations that constrain our ability to exert self-control
and to make wise decisions. Accounting for these effects when we construct agendas can make meetings
more productive and save us from ourselves.
- How to Listen to Someone Who's Dead Wrong
- Sometimes we must listen attentively to someone with whom we strongly disagree. The urge to interrupt
can be overpowering. How can we maintain enough self-control to really listen?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 26: Appearance Antipatterns: I
- Appearances can be deceiving. Just as we can misinterpret the actions and motivations of others, others can misinterpret our own actions and motivations. But we can take steps to limit these effects. Available here and by RSS on June 26.
- And on July 3: Appearance Antipatterns: II
- When we make decisions based on appearance we risk making errors. We create hostile work environments, disappoint our customers, and create inefficient processes. Maintaining congruence between the appearance and the substance of things can help. Available here and by RSS on July 3.
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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.