Has anyone ever told you “don’t take this the wrong way, but…”
Where did your head immediately go upon hearing that statement? I’m willing to bet is was not to a place of productive objectivity.
Email seems to require the “don’t take this the wrong way” disclaimer more than any other form of communication. For many of us, email is the communication method we use more than any other during our workday. And considering how inundated with email we tend to be at the best of times, that leaves a lot of potential for taking things the wrong way.
Whenever we read or write something, we insert tone. Even if you think you are the most objective, neutral writer or reader in the world, you have mannerisms and context that affect the way you “hear” written words. And while you may think that the tone of your words is obvious, you can neither predict nor control the tone perceived by the person at the other end.
On top of misunderstood tone is our tendency to be more aggressive when communicating through a computer. There is something about that protective shield of the screen that lets our inner a**H#!^ out. With email, even nice, measured, even keeled people can be quick to anger. Whether or not we then react by sending a knee-jerk response (emphasis on “jerk”) or simply seethe with irritation for the rest of the day, our reaction to irritating emails can be disproportionately heated.
When dealing with email, a simple question can help get you back on track if a snippy tone or aggressive demand marches its way across your screen:
How can I make this interaction positive or productive?
It’s a straightforward question that can resolve a whole host of issues. If your main goal is to make an interaction positive or productive, you’ll start to look for ways of working with the person on the other side of the screen rather than butt heads with them through email exchange. Anger, hostility, or imagined offense can’t co-exist with positivity or productivity, so focusing your attention away from the negative and towards the productive can help you salvage the situation.
There are other questions you can ask yourself to keep a clear head about the email you send as well as those you receive.
If you are sending an email, ask: Would I say this to the person’s face?
It can be tempting to say what is on our mind, but you still need to ask “How can I make this interaction positive or productive?” If you wouldn’t say what’s in the email to the person’s face, it is unlikely that you are generating a positive or productive conversation. If you aren’t sure, try reading your email out loud so you can actually hear the words on the screen (what comes out is sometimes a revelation).
If you are receiving an email, ask: what useful information or questions are in this email?
When reading email, keep your focus on the useful parts of the email and gloss over any nasty tone or rude words. Try to read it with a relatively neutral voice. Don’t add inflection or tone that you are not 100% certain exists. If confronted with an overtly rude email, print the email and black out every word that does not productively contribute to the conversation. Then, only reply to the parts of the email that are NOT blacked out.
Also, never respond to an insulting email immediately. I fully realize that this is an obvious piece of advice, but it’s easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment and rap out a inflammatory reply. Take several minutes to cool off, and always, always ask yourself – whether you are writing or reading an email – how can I make this interaction positive or productive?
You’ll be amazed at how well that question can decompress a lousy email!
Want some more email tips? I’ve devoted an entire chapter in my book to email! Get your copy of The Handy Communication Answer Book today, flip open to Chapter 5, and start doing email right!
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