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SERIOUSLY?! I dare you to read this!!

So now I have your attention, I’d like to offer some thoughts on some of the perils of communicating via email (or in writing in general).

The key message here is, unless you are a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, regardless of your intent, as the writer, you must be cognisant of the fact that your recipients are in total control of how they perceive your message.

So, I have a rule: Never send an angry email. In fact, if I ever believe my message has the slightest possibility of being misconstrued, I will deliver it face to face, via Zoom/Teams or a phone call.

As human beings, we tend to read messages in their harshest tone. Have you ever read an email and thought: “What the hell does he mean by that?!” It’s likely, unless you’re dealing with a serial sociopath, that there was no hidden meaning in the words.

Save the USE OF CAPS, tone, emotion, volume, sarcasm, humour and even one’s intent is extremely difficult to convey in an email or in the written form in general.

Has anyone ever seen an email conversation turn nasty as a result of a misconstrued message? I have, and when egos and defensiveness are thrown into the mix, it is a recipe for disaster.

For my legal colleagues, I’m sorry to say this, but some of you are the worst!! Do you hear me? … THE WORST!!!! (I’m actually kidding with that last comment, but by reading those few last words, were any of you feeling on the defensive and wanting to fire back at me? If yes, then I guess you see my point.)

So just on my learned legal colleagues, ‘with respect’ your propensity to engage in back and forth letter exchanges with the other side is not immune to the recipient’s perception dilemma. And yes, many a litigator’s letter that I have read is, in every way, designed to be delivered with a piecing, jugular slicing tone. Those emails and letters you write with the opening phrase “With respect….” being a prime example. However, have you ever considered picking up the phone or arranging a meeting with the other side to flesh the issues out? Would your client’s interests be best served by a 45-minute meeting addressing a range of issues as opposed to seven letters exchanging hands over the course of three weeks?

Yes, I get that there are some ‘other sides’ out there that simply will not speak to you unless it is written, but don’t be influenced by their low brow aggression. Play the high road, always. Keep calling, keep requesting a meeting, and be the bigger person.

And subsequent to the meeting, if you need to prepare a written summary of agreed actions, next steps, and so on, then do it. It’s far better in the context of a meeting that was just held and fresh in your mind as opposed to pinning your hopes to a recipient’s perception. It’s also more efficient than getting into an exchange of harsh toned letters changing hands over and over again.

So back to the general topic of communicating via words: email, text, Teams…whatever….

During a recent Conflict Management workshop I conducted for a client, I asked all staff to read a hypothetical email I’d written to a staff member offering some feedback on an advice they’d prepared for a client. The feedback was not glowing, however, it was constructive and offered alternative solutions and considerations. I then asked three individuals to stand up and read the email out loud in the tone they perceived the email was written.

All three missed the mark. They all tended towards a harsh, “half-time coach’s spray”, style of feedback. That was not my intent. Not my intention at all. I then delivered the message to my hypothetical staff member verbally in front of the firm. I used my calm, assertive tone, and the message was well received.

The three staff were not wrong to assume the message was delivered in the way they perceived it; they were in control of that. However, they all received the message totally differently after it was delivered face to face; they received the message in a positive fashion.

Another great example is the delivery of important messages to staff, for instance, as a result of recent COVID-19 restrictions. I assisted a few clients in preparing to deliver some difficult messages to their firms, including advising of the need to reduce salaries, reduce hours or enforce leave. My message was simple: “The staff must see and hear you say it and recognise how difficult this decision has been for you.” In my opinion, delivering such messages via email would have been disastrous and fortunately, Zoom and Teams allowed large staff meetings to be convened during the lock down. The messages were well received and staff responded in the way we’d hoped…..the accepted the decisions and got on with life.

So to all the Keyboard Warriors out there, I recommend you stop and think before sending your email or letter and ask yourself: “Will I get a better result delivering this message face to face (or verbally on the phone/Zoom)?” I believe you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results.

No matter the context, taking the time to deliver your message via the most appropriate means will save you an enormous amount of time and stress, as opposed to managing the potential fall out of your message being received the wrong way.

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