Q: One of my coworkers has a knack for writing emails that instantly irritate me. We normally get along well over the phone and face-to-face interaction, so I don’t think it’s intentional. But there’s something about the way she writes and asks questions that’s really annoying. Do you have constructive tips I can pass along?
A: Because so much information comes to us from non-verbal cues, we are really at a disadvantage when we communicate via email since we are missing things like tone of voice, and demeanor. It’s no wonder that miscommunication and misunderstandings are so common.
So let’s look at what we can do to minimize problems when we are both writing an email, and when we’re reading an email.
Tips for writing:
Avoid being short and cryptic. When writing, you know the context and where you’re coming from. But remember that other people can’t hear your thoughts or know what you mean. Don’t assume that the reader understands, so be clear and specific.
For instance, if someone writes “I didn’t know that!” it’s hard to know whether they are exited, mad or just surprised. So provide context.
Set the tone with the opening words. For example, starting with “We might need to reassess.” or “We have a challenge” telegraphs the reader that there’s a problem, but WE are going to fix it together. So no need to get defensive.
Before sending, picture yourself in the reader’s shoes. I visualize the person reading the email and how they might interpret my meaning. Editing a couple of words can make a difference in tone from accusatory to collaborative.
Tips for reading:
Assume the best interpretation. Especially if you already know that the sender might not mean harm, and that the message is not rude but only clumsy. Respond in a way that makes it clear that you made the most generous assumption. For instance you can respond to an ambiguous “I didn’t know that! by saying “I know, I was surprised too!”
If unsure, ask for clarification. Simply ask. Were you surprised? Are you exited? (don’t volunteer “are you mad?”)
If it’s a sensitive issue, pick up the phone and call. Why are we so reluctant to do this? I don’t know, but very often this is the easiest and fastest way to resolve or prevent a misunderstanding.
Hope these help!
Origianlly posted on HR Box blog.