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How To Prevent Email Misunderstandings

How To Prevent Email Misunderstandings

Keynote Speaker and trainer, Dr. Rick Brinkman reveals the five rules for avoiding email misunderstandings.

Have you ever been offended by someone’s email or inadvertently offended someone else? Have you ever wasted time worrying about an email exchange? 

In this article, we’ll examine the inherent strengths and weaknesses of written communication and how to use the strengths to our advantage while avoiding the pitfalls.

Communication has three parts: how it looks, how it sounds, and what is said. A study by Professor Albert Moriabian concluded that when the parts are mismatched, we apply different weight to the three parts: 55% of the meaning we derive is from how it looks, 38% from how it sounds; volume, speed and tone, and 7% from the actual words.

Conflict arises when there is a mismatch between words and tone. Tone reflects emotional state. Have you ever had someone “customer serving” you and in a bored monotone say, “Have a nice day.” Do you believe they care about your day? Of course not, because when tone does not match words, the words become irrelevant and people only react to the tone.

In a face-to-face communication all three are present. In a phone conversation there is no 55% how people look, only the 38% of how they sound and the 7% what they say. In writing there is only the 7% words on a screen. This allows us to hallucinate freely as to how we think the other person sounds when they say it. Our hallucinations are based on our blood sugar curve, our stress level, and everything we have going on in that moment!  Consider this irony of communication. Tone of voice is taken more personally than any other part of communication. We project the tone on an email based on our own emotional state and then take our projection personally!  Yup, that’s how it works.

But whenever something is lost, something else is gained. In written communications your advantage is time.

Writing is not a true interactive medium. It does not demand an immediate response. But the seduction of email is that it is quick and easy which often causes us to throw away our time advantage.

Here are the 5 Rules of the Conscious Communicator to avoid email misunderstandings.

Rule #1: Separate Your Hallucinations from Reality!

Always remember, “I am hallucinating freely.” Say this out loud now: “I am hallucinating freely.” You don’t know how people sound! You are making it up! You may be right, half right, totally wrong but it is your projection.

Rule #2: Do not respond right away. Take time on your side.

If you hallucinate freely and just fire off a response, this causes two problems. One, you may totally misunderstand where the other person is coming from and end up responding and reacting to your own hallucinations. Two, even if your hallucinations are correct, you may fire off a written communication that isn’t well thought out or well edited. This usually does not lead to resolution, but rather to making the situation worse.

Just back away from the computer, take your hands off the keyboard and take a deep breath. Since writing is not an interactive medium, you can take a time out and not respond right away.

Re-read the email a few hours later (or even the next day).  When you do that, have you noticed there are sentences in the email that were not in there the day before?! You know why that is? It’s not because Email Elves come in at night and add to the email. The reason is human beings can only pay attention consciously to 7 give or take 2 things at a time. As we read an email certain words stimulate us into thoughts and then we continue reading unconsciously.  

In addition, when you are in another phase of blood sugar or not under stress, it’s amazing how the very same words can sound completely different. Things that seemed inflammatory are not quite as big a deal and you’ll probably notice other thoughts in the email, that you totally missed the first time.  

Here is a trick to not missing anything in an email: read it out loud to yourself.

Rule #3: Consider if Email is the Best Way to Proceed or Should You Go Interactive

It’s a good idea to set some mental signals for yourself (or as a workgroup) when it’s time to go interactive. Here are my suggestions of when to pull the rip cord and bail on email. 

Go interactive when:

– You suspect emotional content and/or you are having a strong emotional reaction to what you are hallucinating.

– When you have to gather information or clarify to make sure you understand. If you have to ask more than one question that is not just “yes or no”, it’s time to be interactive.

– When you write something, reread it and worry about it being taken the wrong way, treat that as a clear mental signal it’s time to go interactive.

Some mental signals that it is time to respond in writing are:

– You want to communicate the same thing, at the same time, to a number of people.

– You need to communicate facts and figures or summarize and confirm a conversation you had with that person.

– You want official documentation of your response.

Rule #4: Have A Clear Goal and Edit

If you are emotional then you can vent in a draft, but don’t send it. Think about it, even sleep on it. Decide what result you really want and then craft and edit a communication that will deliver the results you really intend. As a Conscious Communicator always first ask, “what do I want” and set a clear goal for your communication.

Rule #5: Look at Your Communication from the Other Person’s Point of View.

Take the time to re-read it from the other person’s point of view. What might they misunderstand? Are there any potential trigger words or phrases? And definitely read it out loud to yourself and listen for any secondary messages in your own tone. You may hear you are being “cheerful” or “joking”, in which case beware! There is no guarantee the other person will hear it that way. If you hear secondary messages you need to express those in words, not tone.

Although taking time back on your side will take a little more time, being too quick and getting caught in a cascade of misunderstanding wastes much more time and emotional energy. And each interaction with a person sets up the next, so if you have a misunderstanding, it is more likely you will re-create it again with that person. Each time you take the time to be a clear Conscious Communicator, it is an investment in the future of that relationship. Remember these five rules and you’ll never have a bad email day again.

For even more enjoy this video.

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How To Prevent Email Misunderstandings

Dr. Rick Brinkman is the coauthor of the international bestseller Dealing with People You Can’t Stand, which has been translated into 25 languages. His new book, Dealing with Meetings You Can’t Stand, How to Meet Less and Do More is available now. He is a top keynote speaker and trainer on leadership, teamwork, customer service, effective meetings, difficult people, and managing multiple priorities.