Email and online communication has its benefits and traps just like a direct conversation. How can you protect yourself from getting sucked into a virtual argument?
In my work as a mediator, I have seen conflicts escalate quickly due to poorly managed email, social media and SMS communication. The evidence of an ‘email war’ can easily fill a hefty folder – just ask any mediator who has seen someone produce a pile of correspondence during a meeting. Interestingly, reading through this material does not really help the mediation process. However, a quick scan through, without even reading the content, does provide clues about how the conflict escalated.
These clues are very helpful reminders of what to avoid
Rapid-fire communication: The time recorded on the messages shows that they bounce back and forth very quickly, just like a real argument. This often happens with instant messaging.
Arguing in public: Other people are copied in on the communication.
Virtual ‘shouting’: Tell-tale signs are the use of bold, UPPERCASE, underlining and so on, which are intended to really drive the message home.
Time of day: Long work hours or flexible work practices can mean that people manage their communication at night or on weekends. Many people will check messages out of work hours and this can become a real problem when a challenging communication is received out of work hours.
What are some simple lessons to avoid getting sucked into a dangerous whirlpool of on-line arguing?
To message or not to message?: Ask yourself whether messaging or email is the best option to start the communication. At the very least, prepare a draft for review. Come back to it later and consider running it past someone else for an independent view. This particularly applies when considering a message to a colleague out of normal work hours.
Manage stress: The stress response prompts a quick reaction, driven by emotion and adrenaline. Writing when you are upset is a big risk – you will not be operating at your best and are likely to set the wrong tone right from the start. Be sure you take active steps to regain your composure.
Stop early: As soon as it is clear that the communication is difficult, stop. Resist the sense of urgency to respond. Step back and gain perspective.
Give the benefit of the doubt: Be careful about jumping to conclusions when there is a misunderstanding. Wait until you have had a chance to clarify the point with the other person. Maybe they are under pressure or have incomplete or incorrect information?
Don’t fight fire with fire: If you receive a message that you see as questionable, avoid retaliation. Firing back is guaranteed to make things worse and also paint your behaviour in a negative light.
Keep it private: If you had an argument at work, would you broadcast it across the office? The same protocol applies to emails. Pulling in others escalates the conflict and causes frictions across a group. Direct communication with the person concerned is best.
Make a time to talk: Arrange a time to speak or meet with the other person. Perhaps involve a trusted colleague or third person if the conversation is expected to be difficult.
In summary, beware if you have a trigger finger for the ‘Send’ button. It can easily send you down a slippery slope to conflict. Taking the opportunity to break and regain calm – like in a real conversation – will always serve you well.
Ebohr Figueroa, MAHRI, is principal consultant at Converge International. He has over a decade of experience in conflict resolution and has been involved in facilitating many employee relations disputes.