April 10, 2012
Intention v. Impact: Communicating Via Email
It’s not uncommon at the beginning of a mediation process for people to choose as one of their process rules, “No substantive emails.” When I ask clients how email communication has gone between them in the past, some people look at each other and shrug, saying no problem there, but it’s not uncommon for clients to look down at their notes or around the room with a rueful chuckle saying that they might have exchanged a poison pen email or two; and recalling those hurt feelings or misunderstandings, they always agree to not use email to “talk” over the elements of their mediation.
In the world of conflict resolution, email communication is often ranked the worst medium to express ideas, feelings, or anything beyond basic factual information. One lecturer on the subject said, “When you read or write an email you’re not actually communicating in the full sense of the word, as 80% of human communication is non-verbal…when you write or read an email you’re more in a fantasy than in a conversation.” So thinking in that vein, we can’t misinterpret, “I’d like to reschedule next week’s mediation session,” but an email with any more depth than that and our mind often fills in what emails don’t tell us, like context of the statements, nuances, emotional state, inferences, perspectives, intention, and meaning. So through the natural projection that occurs in reading an email, the reader chooses the message to take, and the impact of that message; which could be very different from what the writer intended.
When you sit down at the computer to write an email, whether you’re in mediation or otherwise, you may want to reflect on some of the following thoughts:
- Sitting down and writing an email when you’re feeling emotional means that you’re more likely to express thoughts based on criticism, judgment, accusations, blame, or descriptions. Is that likely to get you what you want? Is it likely after reading your email the other person will agree with you or could your email make the situation worse?
- Alternative: write an email that says you’d like to schedule an in-person or phone conversation in a few days and wait to express your views in the context of a conversation.
- We sometimes think that putting things in an email makes them rational or objective because it’s in writing…but no, most of the time we’re merely reinforcing our own perspective of a situation and doing so without the feedback loop from a conversant.
- Alternative: write down talking points for your next conversation with the person but be prepared to listen and learn about their view because that’s what’s driving their decisions and behavior.
- Email, like voicemail, is a one-way communication tool which can lead us to ignore how what we write affects the recipient. Under the notion of “bravery behind the keyboard,” beware of writing an emotional email as a way to resolve upset feelings, like a purging, without considering the cost—that the other person might not appreciate being your emotional trash can.
- Alternative: if you’re having an emotional response to a situation, sit and ask yourself if you must email or voicemail the other person right then; if it helps, pretend a Word document is an email to the person and get the catharsis of analyzing and reflecting on your feelings but without putting it on the other person.
I am not offering the thoughts above as hard and fast rules. Ultimately we all have to strive to respond appropriately to circumstances. I’ve even had one mediation where the people negotiated all the final elements of their agreement via email and both felt well served by the mediation process. So practice some self-awareness and discipline and watch out for the potholes, but don’t be afraid to do what gets you the best results.