If we’re not writing emails, we’re watching them stack up in our virtual inboxes, which are full of messages ranging from the mundane to the five-alarm fire.
And this is the problem.
It can be really helpful to establish guidelines in your organization as to what email should be used for. At my last business, we had clear urgency levels for different forms of communication with our CEO. In person was most urgent, chat came second, and then lower urgency items were handled with email.
What we didn’t have were clear guidelines about when something being handled in email should be transitioned to a face-to-face meeting. That meant that any confusion often resulted in several frustrating email follow-ups, and a general waste of time for all parties involved.
Stick to the Facts, Jack
Frustration and confusion can sometimes lead to passive aggression or sarcasm in emails, two things that do nothing to solve the issue at hand. This is why you should stick to facts, figures, and yes/no questions and answers in your emails. Don’t leave anything to interpretation — email is not the place to vent, handle complex issues or negotiation processes. When situations like this occurs, it’s time to kick it old-school: face-to-face.
Check-in with Face-to-Face or Phone Meetings
It’s important to establish face-to-face meetings in addition to emails. So much of our communication is nonverbal — which means that a lot more meaning can be conveyed via in-person meetings.
In his book Silent Messages, Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA revealed that 93% of communication is nonverbal, at least in terms of whether or not people like or dislike a public speaker. He determined that a full 55% was body language and the other 38% was tone-of-voice. So remember, even though what you are saying is incredibly important, how you’re saying it is equally critical.
Beware the Negativity Bias
Unfortunately, we as humans have a bias towards negativity. This is why it’s critical to make sure your language is positive so that it is not interpreted as negative. Even neutral language can send the wrong message.
This is a potential example that I’ve experienced from a boss in the past:
That is not what I asked for. We need to talk.
When you read that, your stomach might drop, automatically assuming your manager was upset, even if it wasn’t the manager’s intention. On the other end of the spectrum you might feel indignant, as in, well maybe if you had been clearer I could have done what you wanted instead of wasting my time!
You would likely get a much better response with the following message:
I think there may some misunderstanding around what I was looking for. Let’s have a quick chat when you’re available to double-check that we’re in alignment.
A message like that is far less likely to be misinterpreted. And again, even if you are upset with your employee, co-worker, or boss, email is not the place to suss out these feelings.
Interestingly enough, emoticons, like smiley faces :-), end up serving the purpose of softening our emailed and texted words as well. They provide that little extra emotional cue to indicate that everything is a-okay on our end and that we’re not hammering away at the keyboard with a frown :-( or, heaven forbid, a scowling frown >:-(
Experiment With Other Channels
The inherent difficulties of email have lead to companies adopting other forms of communication. As I mentioned earlier, chat was a common form of communication at my last company. It was fast, informal, and you could pepper your language with emoticons to add some emotional context.
Other tech companies are tackling the email conundrum as well, like the well regarded service Slack. It sort of acts as a hybrid service of more robust instant messaging, with everything in one place. There is also the similarly full-featured HipChat by Atlassian.
If you’re in a remote team, don’t just rely on phone conversations, use Skype or Google Hangouts for video chats. Video focuses you to pay attention, while phone conferences provide us a little too much leeway to multi-task or check our Facebook news streams.
See what works for your company, but never forget the importance of face-to-face and phone conversations. The subtleties revealed in these forms of communication will go a long way to bond you and your co-workers, and they will often help you get to the root of issues faster and with greater clarity.
Want to dig deeper into communication?
Here’s some related training for you and your team:
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