Some people write email badly. It's unclear, ambiguous, or just hard to understand. When they speak on the phone, or in person, what they say seems less opaque, because if something isn't clear, you can ask a question, and you get a clarifying answer. No, these people seem to be unclear only in email.
Among those who fairly consistently write unintelligible email messages are those who don't know the language well. They aren't the subjects of this article. Let's consider only those who know the language and who consistently author unintelligible email messages. What's going on?
To understand why these people produce unintelligible email messages, begin by appreciating the advantages ambiguity and opacity offer to senders of such messages.
- Insulation from commitment
- By avoiding commitment to clear positions, the authors of unclear email messages leave themselves room to maneuver. If one possible interpretation proves wrong or politically undesirable, the author can say, "No, I didn't mean that, I meant this."
- Insulation from responsibility
- Consider, for example, ambiguous or unclear messages that supposedly contain directions or orders. If the directions are unclear, the author can claim that the recipient misinterpreted them if trouble develops. If the order is unclear, and trouble develops, the giver of the order can claim that the action taken was not the action that was ordered. Ambiguity shelters the author from responsibility.
- Ambiguity saves time
- Writing withBy avoiding commitment to clear
positions, the authors of unclear
email messages leave themselves
room to maneuver clarity is difficult. Authors must consider possible misinterpretations of what they write, and devise language that limits the interpretations to those the author intends. Ambiguity is much easier to achieve.
- Intimidation offers additional protection
- If recipients request clarification, the author can intimidate them: "What part of X don't you understand?" Or, "I thought the message was perfectly clear, but apparently, not for someone like you." Or, "You missed your calling. You should have been a lawyer." (Ineffective for recipients who are lawyers)
The effect on recipients can be maddening. They often know that seeking clarification is risky, but choosing an interpretation that might be wrong is even riskier. They huddle among themselves, working out scenarios and hoping they'll discover the right interpretation, or maybe one that's less risky than the others. They dare not seek telephonic clarification, because they need evidence justifying the choice they ultimately make. A phoned request for clarification doesn't help.
There is a tactic that sometimes works. Recipients can send the author of the ambiguous message an email message that reads, in essence, "OK, got it. We'll do X, exactly as you suggest in your message below." The author of the ambiguous message then has a choice: (a) approve the interpretation; (b) correct it, again ambiguously; or (c) deny receiving the message. If the sender chooses (a), and X is unambiguous, the recipient has the clarification sought. If the sender chooses (b), the recipient can repeat the tactic. After a pattern of responses of type (c) is established, they lose credibility.
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More articles on Effective Communication at Work:
- When You Aren't Supposed to Say: II
- Most of us have information that's "company confidential," or possibly even more sensitive
than that. Sometimes people who try to extract that information use techniques based on misdirection.
Here are some of them.
- Long-Loop Conversations: Asking Questions
- In virtual or global teams, where remote collaboration is the rule, waiting for the answer to a simple
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Here are some suggestions for framing questions that are clear enough to get answers quickly.
- The Limits of Status Reports: II
- We aren't completely free to specify the content or frequency of status reports from the people who
write them. There are limits on both. Here's Part II of an exploration of those limits.
- That Was a Yes-or-No Question: II
- When, in the presence of others, someone asks you "a simple yes or no" question, beware. Chances
are that you're confronting a trap. Here's Part II of a set of suggestions for dealing with the yes-or-no
- Four Overlooked Email Risks: I
- Working together to resolve issues or make decisions in email is fraught with risk. Most discussions
of these risks emphasize using etiquette to manage emotional content. But email has other limitations,
less-often discussed, that make managing email exchanges very difficult.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- And on October 30: Power Distance and Risk
- Managing or responding to project risks is much easier when team culture encourages people to report problems and question any plans they have reason to doubt. Here are five examples that show how such encouragement helps to manage risk. Available here and by RSS on October 30.
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