As I’ve discussed before, email is not
And yet we persist in treating as such.
Add to that the experience of getting an email on a topic you feel
passionately about, and it’s a recipe for a communications disaster.
I’m sure we’ve all been there. You’re on a mailing list or in some kind of
on-line discussion and someone says something that, to you, is outrageous –
literally provoking outrage. You then experience an urge, a desire, a
need, to respond, to respond before anyone else does, and to respond
strongly to put that person in their place. Perhaps you want to point out the
error of their ways and their thinking, and then perhaps move on to topics such
as their parentage and personal hygiene.
And that’s when all hell breaks loose.
Understand that I’m not saying that the target of your response might not be
worthy of all those thoughts, and more.
What I am saying is this:
Email just sucks at properly conveying passion.
It’s incredibly easy to do more harm than good with a less than
fully thought out reply.
Unless you write for a living and treat each email as a manuscript to be
crafted, rather than a quick-and-easy substitute for a face-to-face discussion,
the chances are that everything you say in that quick and passionate response
will be wasted. Right or wrong, justified or not, your message will likely not
be heard over the emotion of the moment.
And in the words of the title of a good book I read recently, It’s
Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear.
The fact is most of us are not good writers. Some are, but by and large,
most are not. And in all honesty, that’s usually ok for email. Email is not
typically that demanding a medium. Messages are short and to the point; more of
a discussion than an oratory.
Unfortunately when we get passionate about something our writing skills
certainly don’t improve. In fact, it’s usually just the opposite; out the
window they go. Just when we need it, our words fail us. In fact, the result of
knee-jerk passionate responses is typically to do more harm than good.
I’ve seen it again and again; thoughtful and important opportunities for
discussion and education get lost in heated words and accusations. Often
relationships are damaged as the messages turn personal, and the entire point
of the original discussion is lost.
I’m sure you’ve seen it too.
So what’s the answer? What do you do when you feel that visceral “I must
respond NOW!” reaction?
I know, I know, you’re thinking “but what if what I have to say is so
important, so urgent, that it simply can’t wait? I mean, the person I’m
replying to is just so wrong, I can’t let it go!”
There’s very little that can’t stand to wait 24 hours. Really.
Here’s why that delay is so critically important.
Without getting in to a lot of psychological hoo-ha, that visceral “must
respond NOW” reaction is your fight-or-flight reaction applied to a medium
where it just doesn’t make any sense. Your emotional response and reaction are
governed by a different part of your brain.
And that part doesn’t put words and thoughts together very well.
Waiting is all about letting your thoughts catch up to your emotions.
I guarantee you that if you wait 24 hours you’ll write a better, more
coherent and less offensive reply than if you give in and write it immediately.
In fact, that’s typically true for any response that requires a little more
than average thought. Taking a little time to think it through almost always
results in better email.
I’m not talking about your changing your mind or your opinions, though of
course that can happen. All I’m talking about is changing your words, changing
your tone and changing your approach. I’m talking about using words, tones and
approaches that simply aren’t accessible to you in the heat of the moment. I’m
talking about choosing words, tones and approaches that focus on communicating
your message, rather than blinding the recipient with your outrage.
And the absolutely wonderful, often-overlooked but critically
important side effect?
Your recipient will be much more likely to actually hear
what you have to say. Yes, you might actually get your point across.
Wouldn’t that be cool?
Another side effect? You’ll avoid causing the discussion to “blow up” and
you’ll avoid providing a venue for others to pile-on. You’ll avoid filling your
inbox and the inboxes of everyone watching with off-topic and often vitriolic
Making the world a friendlier place is a nice side effect too, but I figure
that reducing the amount of off-topic email you have to deal with might be more
compelling if you’re expecting tools and tips from a site called “Taming
Sometimes “using email more effectively” is nothing more than “communicating
more effectively”. Sometimes you can make a huge difference in your approach to
email, and the burden it places on your daily life not by focusing on the tools
and the technicalities, but rather what it is your saying and how you’re saying
I guess what I’m trying to say is that sometimes taming the beast that is
email means taming the beast that is us.