Most people interact with their email numerous times daily. They dash off a quick message, hit send and usually don’t think too much more about it unless something goes sideways.
But while we may all know email isn’t necessarily the best mode of communication, it’s fast and easy, so it frequently becomes the default option. Recently, my friend Steve shared an example of him advising someone not to put something in email, them acknowledging his perspective, but then going on to do the exact thing he advised against. Unfortunately, the consequences of their actions will continue to be felt for quite some time. Steve went on to say, “Anytime a situation calls for nuance or compassion or involves a big emotion like anger, email is not appropriate. And honestly, certain issues shouldn’t be addressed at all via email.”
Wow!!! While I have heard and read a lot of things about communication, I don’t think I have ever had someone cut that directly to the heart of a matter. His comments were so good, I had to immediately grab a Post It note and jot down what he had just said.
Steve’s comments are particularly important for the workplace and even more so when managers are interacting with employees.
Let’s look a bit closer at each of these components…
“Anytime a situation calls for nuance”- Oxford Languages tells us that nuance is “the subtle difference in, or shade of meaning, expression or sound.” Merriam Webster online adds, “A subtle distinction or variation… Sensibility to, awareness of or ability to express delicate shadings.”
Nuance often relies on cues that can’t really be communicated in email, such as tone or body language. Any while most people naturally tend to read tone INTO an email, the truth is, we can’t be certain they won’t get it wrong and perceive subtlety that wasn’t originally intended by the sender.
In fact, an article on Entrepreneur.com sites a 2005 study entitled “Egocentrism over email” which found that “People vastly overestimate how often the recipient of a message will correctly identify their intended tone. [While] senders estimated nearly 80% accuracy, the study found that recipients sensed the right tone only 56% of the time.” That’s quite a difference!
“Compassion”- Greater Good Magazine (a publication from The Greater Good Science Center at University of California, Berkeley) says “Compassion literally means to suffer together… the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.”
Compassion is needed when people are having a hard time and conditions are not ideal. In those circumstances, connection and real time message adjustments are required, things that are harder to accomplish in a medium such as email.
“Or has a big emotion like anger” – Anger is the emotional equivalent of nuclear energy. Most people don’t know how to handle it in even the smallest measure, so they really struggle when it becomes radioactive.
Messages sent with excessive capital letters, multiple punctuation symbols, or novella length rambling all add up to communication that can lead to a meltdown and a possible nuclear winter. Additionally, email is a permanent document that can be reread ad nauseum, forwarded to others and found through the process of discovery.
“Certain issues shouldn’t be handled at all via email.” – Let’s title this The Four D’s: if the communication involves discipline, discharge, disputes or (a need for) discretion, don’t use email. These matters are better done face to face, if possible, so each person can better discern nonverbal cues, quickly adjust if miscommunication occurs, and ask follow-up questions so all parties leave with the highest level of understanding and dignity.
Ultimately, email has the power to be a great communication tool, but only when done well and with careful consideration. So, if you are interested in maintaining world peace, or at least some level of diplomacy in the workplace: don’t use email because it’s the easiest form of communication, use it because it’s the right one.