How often have you found yourself having a conversation, and it gradually dawning on you that the person you are talking to thinks the conversation is about something quite different to what you thought? It happens to us all from time to time, and normally it causes at worst mild embarrassment as one of you says, ‘hang on a minute, I thought we were talking about x’ and the other looks bemused. Sometimes though, miscommunication can cause real problems.
Perhaps the most common place for miscommunication to cause problems in the working world is in e-mails. Maybe the relationship is a bit sticky already, or perhaps the subject is emotive. You write an e-mail, for example telling someone what you are going to do. Writing the message down gives you a chance to choose the words carefully so that they can’t be misinterpreted, right? Wrong! Within a few microseconds of pressing the ”send” button, you notice that your computer has started to smoke from the heat in the reply that has just clanged into your inbox. You read it – how could they have misunderstood your intentions so wildly? They must be spoiling for a fight! Your emotion finds its way into your reply, and the exchange just escalates. E-mail fireworks are never productive.
Why are e-mails so fraught? Mainly, they are too easy. We dash them off with little thought. For straightforward factual messages that is not a problem. The trouble comes when the exchange has some (often unexpected) emotional content. Although they seem like a way of keeping the emotion out and so appear to be an easy option, humans are emotional creatures: we don’t often do purely rational. Be especially careful when you are worried about the reaction, and it feels safer to keep your distance. By omitting the emotional context of the message, which we detect mostly from body language and tone of voice, we take away the very cues which would help the recipient to know whether we meant to be provocative or were just not choosing our words very well. Poorly-chosen words in the context of a friendly tone and an open expression will usually only prompt clarification, but without these, people usually assume the worst.
Here are five tips for minimising the risk of e-mail fireworks, and getting things back on track if necessary:
- If you think the message might have some emotional content, don’t rely on e-mail if you can possibly avoid it. Start the exchange face-to-face, or at least with a phone call, so that there is an emotional context. Only once the tone has been set should you follow it up with an email.
- If you didn’t think the message was emotional, but the response appears to be – or even just indicates misunderstanding – never send an email reply. Pick up the phone straight away to clarify, or go and see them if you can.
- If you have to send an email which you know may be emotive, save a draft overnight before sending it, and re-read it in the morning. You have a better chance then of seeing how someone else might mis-interpret your words, and stopping it before it is too late. I rarely find I change nothing the next day!
- For really sensitive messages which you have to put in writing, ask someone else to check your words before you send them.
- If an exchange has gone emotional, apologise face to face – even if you don’t think you have anything to apologise for.