ARCHITECT OR ARSONIST: Using e-mail to build not burn bridges

Use e-mail to build not burn connectionsAs a mediator helping people repair the damage that conflict has done, I have seen the havoc a single e-mail message can wreak. And as a corporate trainer, I have heard supervisors and employees alike complain about the lack of civility in e-mail messages from co-workers.

Paradoxically, e-mail’s advantages are also its shortcomings. The advantages? E-mail instantaneously delivers information and content. The downside? E-mail instantaneously delivers information and content. It is all too easy to blast off the blistering e-mail response that you typed in a ten-fingered fury. And once you hit “send”, there’s nothing you can do to take it all back.

The latest cautionary tale regarding the destruction that e-mail can unleash comes, alas, from the legal world. Lawyers and now this morning’s Boston Globe are buzzing over an e-mail exchange between two Massachusetts attorneys, one an experienced and respected practitioner, the other a newly admitted lawyer who turned down a job offer in a rather ill-advised way.

Despite its tremendous convenience and speed, e-mail is unfortunately no substitute for face-to-face communication, nor is it always an effective medium for dialogue. So, before you hit that “send” button, please consider the following advice from a mediator on how to make the most of e-mail:

It’s the Little Things That Count

One of the most frequent complaints I hear about e-mail is how downright unfriendly they sound. That’s because many people want to keep their e-mail messages short and to the point. That’s fine, but to avoid sounding abrupt, you may want to include the following touches:

  • Start with a greeting–and remember to use the recipient’s name.
  • A little small talk doesn’t hurt. You need only a handful of words to ask how they’re doing or to say you hope they’re well.
  • Provide your contact information and encourage them to call you if there are questions. Remind them that there’s a real human being on the other end.
  • End by signing off–whether it’s “Thank you” or “Take care” or “Very truly yours”, along with your name.

Speaking of “thank you”, words like “please” and “thanks” aren’t just good manners. They can also soften a request (even if that request is actually a direct order) and convey respect and courtesy–which still carry a great deal of weight even in these modern, multi-tasking times. Make your mother proud.

Is E-Mail the Best Way to Handle This?

If you’re about to fire off an angry e-mail, take a moment and think. Is e-mail really the best way to resolve this?

People who are conflict-averse like e-mail a lot because it seems like an ideal way to avoid a face-to-face confrontation. The problem is that e-mail usually makes things worse. Unlike a face-to-face conversation where we can gauge tone of voice, inflection, facial expression, and other cues to divine the real intent behind someone’s words, with e-mail we’re flying blind. It’s easy to make assumptions about what someone meant, and it’s also easy to mistake the impact of our own words.

If the e-mail has raised important issues, your chances of addressing them effectively and meaningfully will be increased if you take courage in both hands and speak directly with the other person. You’ll avoid and prevent misunderstandings if you do.

Get a Second Opinion

If you’re not sure about the tone of an e-mail message, get a second opinion. Have a trusted colleague or friend read it for you and give you their feedback before you send it. Be careful, however: make sure that this colleague or friend will respect your confidentiality. You don’t want your e-mail to be seen by the wrong eyes.

Keep The Focus on the Problem, Not the Person

This is a favorite expression of mediators everywhere, but this is no meaningless platitude. It actually works. Whatever you do, don’t make it personal. Stay away from adjectives that insult the other person’s character, work ethic, or personal habits. Focus on the problem. Explain its impact on you. Ask for a solution. And definitely avoid all caps–YOU DON’T WANT TO LOOK AS IF YOU’RE SHOUTING, DO YOU?

Think About the Long Term

Right now you’re angry. And undoubtedly it would feel good to e-mail exactly what’s in your heart. For maybe about 30 seconds.

But our actions hold consequences not just for today, but for tomorrow as well. I was struck by something the older and more experienced lawyer said in one of his e-mail messages to the young attorney: “You need to realize that this is a very small legal community…”

That wasn’t a threat–it was the truth. It was a reminder to her of how small the world is. Everything we do builds a bridge between us and someone else, or burns one down. You can be either an architect or an arsonist, it’s your choice.

In the end, relationships really do matter. And how we conduct ourselves in life has impact, when we are all in fact so closely linked. Before you send that e-mail, think about what it may mean for you years down the road. Will sending it mean the end of a business relationship? A friendship sabotaged? Is it really worth it? What’s the big picture? And what can you do instead that will make a positive difference for your future?

The You of Tomorrow will thank you.

And, for further reading, I recommend “How to Be a Mensch“, by Guy Kawasaki. (See also his terrific post on “The Effective Emailer“–with thanks to Jim Calloway for the link.)

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