Email is a great tool – sometimes.
It can be great for sharing information. Or making plans. Or sharing ideas.
But used wrongly, it can also cause a lot of damage.
Using it in many situations can cause greater conflict, a loss of morale, and disconnect.
Howard Guttman, in his book When Goliaths Clash, gives 8 characteristics, or ways, why email can hurt communication. In this article, we will go through these as well as add one of our own.
Here we go.
1. Email can encourage disengagement
So much goes into a conversation when face to face, and, to a lesser extent, over the phone. Email loses that.
When talking to someone face to face, there is body language, emotion, and so on. You are more likely to see them as a person.
With email, it’s a person behind a screen. It’s easy to see the person as an “object” instead of a person.
It can be easy to spout your complaint or issue with someone without regard to their response, something that you wouldn’t do if you were face to face.
It can also be easy to be less “involved” in the conversation happening over email than if it was held in person. It can be super easy just to ignore what someone else has to say.
2. Email can encourage “bravado”
Email can also encourage bravado.
Have you ever noticed how people will say things they would never say in person over a text, social post, or email?
When you are behind a screen and don’t see actual people, it can be easy to say your mind and say things you normally would never say.
It’s a lot easier to yell and complain at someone over email than in person – but it’s just as harmful.
Discussing issues in person helps us see people as people and often helps us refrain from going too far.
Another danger with the bravado is that:
3. Once an email is sent, it is sent. You can’t take it back.
Granted, Google allows you a few seconds to cancel an email, but if in a burst of anger you let someone “have it” over email, you can’t take it back.
What is said is said.
Now, we can stick our feet in our mouth as well speaking face to face, but the time waiting to speak to someone and speaking in someone’s presence can often personalize the person and help us refrain from something that we may regret.
4. Using emails can help people avoid accountability
Emails can be used to avoid accountability (or to deny it).
Instead of making the decision you need to, you email everyone and their dog for their “opinion”.
You get “CC” happy.
What started off as a decision by consulting becomes a decision by consensus (if the decision is ever made).
Then the decision is no longer yours but everyones. If it goes bad, you’re off the hook.
Blast email to everyone: “It was Joan’s idea…” or “It was a mutual decision”.
5. Email encourages underhanded dealings
Email can make it easy to go behind other people’s backs about an issue or to be deceptive in a request or information.
For example, Instead of dealing with the issue, you blast about the person to others and assassinate their character. Or you complain to others who aren’t involved.
Or you gather allies against someone.
An example of deception can include “sins of omission”. Topics that normally would be discussed or questions asked in a face to face conversation may be “left out” when sending an email. You request something, but don’t mention budget issues or a previous request or so on.
6. Email can create easy triangulation
Triangulation is where you have an issue with someone, but you go to your manager or someone else about it instead of the person. You get involved someone else to “fix” it for you instead of first going to the person and dealing with the issue yourself.
Email is ripe for electronic triangulation. It can be easy to forward an email or a complaint about someone instead of just going to that person and dealing with it.
Triangulation, whether in person or digital, causes dissension and a whole boatload of other issues. Just don’t do it or let it happen. Don’t get trapped either in someone else’s issue that they should take care of themselves.
7. Email encourages tag-teaming
Want other people on your side? Just email people.
CC people who have no business in the discussion, get their “opinion”, and get them to join your viewpoint.
It’s easy to enlist others to your point of view via email. But it can also be deadly as well.
8. Email causes us to miss major parts of communication
As we said before when talking to someone face to face, you have body language, you have emotion, you have tone of voice.
Though I’ve heard the actual percentage debated, a large part of communication is nonverbal.
You don’t have that via email. And because of that:
9. Email is ripe for miscommunication
Because you don’t have the nonverbal communication going on, email is ripe for miscommunication.
It’s easy to take your feelings toward the person or how you feel at the moment and place it on the text of the email and read it with those feelings and emotions.
It’s easy to read more into an email than what is really there.
It can be easy to make assumptions about message and intent that you really have no clue about.
So what can you do instead?
Here are 4 simple rules to follow.
1. Only use email for information sending
If you have information to share or want to give a quick update or ask a quick question, email can be useful. However, if you think it may be a touchy or sensitive issue, it’s better to do it in person.
If you have an issue with someone or a policy, if there is conflict or contention, if there is a high possibility the information will be misread, it’s a good idea to do it in person or phone/video chat (if you can’t do it in person) instead.
2. If there is an issue, deal with it with the person, in person
Don’t include people who don’t need to be involved. Don’t “get at” them. Go to them one-on-one (in most situations) and deal with it. If that doesn’t work, involve a manager or take it to the next level.
3. Be wise in who you CC
Don’t include people because you can, if they have no business being part of the discussion, don’t include them.
4. Remember that the people you email are people, not objects
Remind yourself that this is a person with feelings. Would you say what you are about to say if you were talking with them in person?
5. Examine your message to see if there is room for misinterpretation
How would you take the email if you read it? Are you assuming anything in your email (such as a person’s perspective, information that you think they already know) that could affect how they receive it?
Email is a great tool – if used for the right kind of communication. If we aren’t careful, it can cause dissension, confusion, and conflict.
In this article, we discussed 9 reasons why email can hurt communication and 5 guidelines on how to use it effectively.
Now to you: Do you have any other suggestions for using emails effectively as a tool for communication?