Words are very powerful tools. Written language is, perhaps, the most complex form of communication – absent of tone, volume, facial expression, and body language, it leaves interpretation completely at the discretion of the reader. How and when we use written language to communicate should be as discretionary as any other form of communication. Experts in communication believe that the primary reason for interoffice, interpersonal, and professional conflict is a lack of understanding of the importance of clear and concise communications skills. It’s no wonder that e-mail is causing such a ruckus.
Enlisting the expert advice of professional communications coach, Suzanne Bates, president and CEO of Wellesley, MA-based Bates Communications, (www.bates-communications.com), I set out to improve my own e-mail skills. She shared with me her insight as to the dangers and pitfalls of communicating through e-mail. “The problem is that although it is an efficient way to communicate, it isn’t always the most effective way,” she notes.
“The biggest mistake that people make is using e-mail to air their grievances and hostility in place of face-to-face contact,” she says. Bates recalls instances where people have been notified through e-mail that their employment had been terminated by their company. Ding! “You’ve got mail!” followed by “You’ve been fired.” Tacky. Unprofessional. Cruel.
“We’re using e-mail inappropriately. It is never a good idea to pass along negative or perceived negative comments, criticisms, or opinions in an e-mail message. In some instances, the intent of a person’s comments may be honest enough; however, the reader’s mood or emotional state at the time can affect his or her interpretation of the message,” explains Bates, who further advises that private or critical statements are best addressed in face-to-face meetings or even via tele- or video-conferences.
“People make mistakes when they react to a situation using e-mail as a response tool,” she continues. “There was an instance where a specific client was being transferred from one representative to another. The representative losing the client wrote a very angry message to a supervisor concerning the matter. That person inadvertently sent the message to the person to whom the client was being transferred instead of to the supervisor. That, in turn, opened up an even greater argument in the matter. All of this could have been avoided by understanding that e-mail is the least appropriate venue for settling grievances,” Bates stresses. “It would have been much better for that person to have taken 24 hours to think about a response rather than to instantly act on their emotions.”
Beyond using e-mail as a coward’s way out of addressing interpersonal conflicts, Bates suggests that, as a whole, we are sending too many e-mail messages to too many people stuffed with too much information. She offers a few easy suggestions to improve the quality and decrease the quantity of the electronic messages that we send (see Grammar School Guidelines). “Companies spend a lot of money improving the management skills of their executives. More often than not, the skills they are lacking most are clear communications skills,” says Bates.
She adds that though most companies don’t have set guidelines for appropriate use of e-mail, electronic means of communicating can be very efficient and effective. Just be sure to first educate management on the proper use of e-mail.
The greatest benefit of e-mail? No criticism for penmanship.
Clara M.W. Vangen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is technologies editor at Buildings magazine.