Email Fires are Preventable: How to Avoid a Flaming Trail of Messages

Email Fires are Preventable: How to Avoid a Flaming Trail of Messages

In email, people are often concerned about the tone they use, or the tone their readers perceive they use, and its effect on the message.  

Before email, workplace conflict related to writing was less prevalent.  Now people pop off emails without rereading them, often when they’re upset about a situation.  This can lead to a trail of emails in which writers are flaming each other, escalating a minor problem into a major one.  At times like these, we all need to take a deep breath and think about using email to get results rather than “winning” the email exchange.  

How can you avoid unnecessary conflict with email?

  1. SPEAK INSTEAD OF WRITE.  The written word isn’t always the best method of communication.  Use conversation rather than email to discuss a problematic situation.  In a face-to-face conversation, you are better able to read body language and moderate your tone of voice.  Even the telephone allows for voice inflection and meaningful pauses.  
  2. COOL OFF.  Don’t use email to vent.  Writing is a good way to blow off steam if you let that writing happen in private, journal form rather than using email to fume at someone who has annoyed you.  You may feel as if you scored a momentary win in a mud-slinging email, but your gain will be short-lived.  In reality, you may have damaged an important relationship that is necessary for the long-term.  Now you have to undo the damage.
  3. SHELVE AND DELIBERATE.  Remember counting to ten?  Count even higher before you react to an email that has irritated you.  Take a walk if necessary.  When possible, allow a touchy situation to simmer overnight before sending your email reply.  And, if you’re still concerned about your response, ask an objective colleague to read it.  
  4. AVOID CATEGORICAL STATEMENTS.  Watch out for terms like “always” and “never.”  We are likely to respond negatively when someone generalizes a one-time act as something we ALWAYS do.  
  5. PUT YOUR SENSITIVITY ON THE BACK BURNER.  Sometimes people are in a hurry, so they may come off as abrupt to their readers. Additionally, give people a break by tuning into their individual styles.  Some people are more direct than others.  Not everyone uses the same communication style that you do.  
  6. STICK TO THE FACTS. The more objective you sound in workplace email, the less likelihood there is of strong, baseless opinions taking over.  Also, avoid pettiness at all costs. Some details are irrelevant to the larger picture.  
  7. AVOID UPSETS OVER BLIND COPIES.  When discussing issues in email, blind copying additional recipients, especially the primary recipient’s boss, is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline.  Prevent blowups by being transparent about who is copied on the email.  
  8. AVOID APPEARING SELF-IMPORTANT and causing email overload by distributing an email to an unnecessarily large audience.  Stop this “wildcarding” by taking a moment to clarify in your mind who needs to receive your email message.  You don’t want to create unnecessary email responses with questions like “How does this relate to me?”

Every day, we deal with issues at work and we want to avoid making these issues more difficult to resolve with aggressive and finger-pointing emails.  Putting the above tips to use will help us to steer clear of email flare-ups and communicate more respectfully and productively.

Have you experienced an email issue related to tone?   What happened and what would you do differently?  Feel free to add your thoughts in the comment section below.  

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