I know we’ve all heard it before: Email doesn’t convey meaning the same way an actual conversation does.
And yet, I see people regularly relying on email to do the heavy-lifting when an issue starts to emerge. More often than not, a volley ensues in which you can practically map the growing frustration and misunderstanding with each exchange.
I recently witnessed such an exchange since I was cc’d on the chain in question. Even though I was being copied so I could coach one of the parties, it made me uncomfortable to watch. It was like seeing a relationship unravel right in front of me. What started as a relatively polite and productive inquiry had devolved into clipped, bossy sentences that were accusatory at best and demeaning at worst.
After about four back-and-forths as a silent observer, I couldn’t stand it. I had to chime in.
“Can we all hop on the phone? This seems to be spiraling out of control.”
Ten minutes later, the four people on the thread were on a conference call. While there were clearly still differences of opinion and competing desired outcomes, the tone of the conversation had shifted. People were willing to hear each other out. They even backed-up and made some concessions, willing to own how their behavior or direction may have contributed to the misunderstanding.
For most people with beating hearts (and that’s most of us!), it’s a lot easier to be flippant, harsh and demanding when we’re typing words quickly between conference calls. When faced with an actual person, in addition to being reminded that they are, in fact, a person and not just a computer screen, we also have an opportunity to have an actual conversation. A conversation in which we can speak, listen, and see how our words land – rather than just flinging our unedited thoughts into the vortex.
It was easy for me to see this relationship falling apart in real time, but I’m as guilty as the next when it comes to my own communication patterns. Let’s face it – email is convenient and most leaders tend to be over-scheduled. Sometimes it’s the only way to trade thoughts with someone if we want to make progress without waiting for a meeting.
To break the cycle, I’m being more mindful about my email. I now pay attention and if an email prompts more than one exchange, I ask myself if the topic warrants a conversation instead. I try to catch it at the earliest onset and hop on the phone. Same goes for an email where the tone is questionable. If I find I’m beginning to take offense or read meaning into the sender’s message, I pick up the phone. On the flip-side, if I’m about to compose a response and I feel emotional about it, it’s usually a signal that a conversation is in order.
As a writer, it’s tempting to hide behind the curtain of email, where I can construct perfect arguments and tweak my word choices. But – as Susan Scott says in “Fierce Conversations,” – the conversation is the relationship. Having a prolific pen (or keyboard) alone will not create meaningful relationships.
Tip: Pick up the phone.