Death by E-mail

We have all experienced it. That moment when you read an e-mail and react emotionally to it. Some of us immediately send off a reply while still in the throes of anger. Others sit on it a while and carefully craft a reply. Very few of us pick up the phone or go to the person directly and ask them if our interpretation of what they were implying in the e-mail was correct.

Upsetting e-mail

Upsetting e-mail

The problem is tone, as we have no way of telling what it actually is from the words on the screen. It is left to us to add the tone and depending on our mood at the time and many other factors we can easily get it wrong. In my personal experience when that happens it is all down hill from there. People feel free to say things in an e-mail when they are angry that they would never ever have the balls to say to your face.

In the past I had a relationship seriously damaged because the only way the person would communicate with me was by e-mail. Once the flame war started there seemed to be no way to put it out. No matter how carefully I crafted my replies I was perceived as being hostile and to be fair I felt that the replies to me were incredibly hostile and nasty as well. Eventually I decided that I would only make matters worse by continuing so I just stopped.

Two years ago my Manager pulled me aside and expressed her upset at the tone of my e-mails to her. I was aghast as I had no such tone in mind. I am a blunt person by nature and thought that I was dispassionately stating facts but that was not how they were received. I was very relieved when she talked to me about it and from then on added a smiley emoticon to almost every e-mail to her just in case 🙂

More recently despite a smiley face and loving words a relationship was badly damaged over an interpretation of the tone and meaning of my e-mail. It was so bad I am now scared to communicate by e-mail with this person and have sworn to never do so again.

So how on earth do you and I protect ourselves from this kind of reaction? Connie Dieken has some advice in her article, The Tone Gap: How to Prevent an E-mail Disaster

Ever received an e-mail response that struck you as the communication equivalent of Whac-A-Mole? Maybe you got a curt “see below” when you sent a question to a peer in an e-mail chain. You felt clobbered by your peer’s abrupt, dismissive tone. Instead of getting clarification (you already knew the answer was not below), you felt hammered by Ms. Snippy or Mr. Ever-rude.

Now let’s reverse the scenario. YOU’RE the one who sends the response. You know your peer is under deadline, so you reply pronto (mid-meeting from your Blackberry, to boot). You don’t intend to be abrasive – you believe the answer they’re seeking is in the e-mail chain below and you’re trying to guide them to the right spot in a timely manner.

See the difference? It’s the tone gap.

There’s often a profound difference between the tone you intend and the one the receiver experiences. It can be critical because your tone can be an influence maker or an influence breaker. That’s because when you receive an email, you assign the tone. You interpret whether the sender’s tone is helpful, dismissive, playful, snide, warm or cold. Now reverse it. When you send an e-mail, others do the same thing to you. As a result, you may be ticking people off left and right without realizing it. As an executive coach, I’m hearing tonal gap issues playing out with alarmingly increasing frequency. Good people are damaging relationships and being held back from leadership advancements because they’re unaware they’re alienating their bosses, peers and clients.

Here’s the thing: e-mail communication lacks the three human signals that indicate tone. 1) There’s no warmth of voice. 2) No body language. 3) No facial expressions. Faced with a lack of tone, people often assign your words the worst possible tone – especially if you happen to catch them when they’re under stress or in a grumpy mood. It’s particularly important when e-mailing people who don’t know you well enough to “hear” your voice accurately.

How can you prevent a tone gap? Make it a connecting habit to add intentional warmth. I don’t mean to pour on the syrup with fake, sticky-sweet e-mails. That would defeat my Talk Less, Say More mantra. Instead, three tiny tweaks can make an enormous difference in how people interpret your typing tone and boost your ability to influence.

Here are three quick tips to add intentional warmth:

Start with the person’s name. A simple personalized “Hi Les” or even just “Les,” signals that you’re thoughtful and respectful and don’t intend to cop an attitude.
Add a warm connecting sentence to the top such as “Good to hear from you,” “Thanks for your quick response,” or “I appreciate your input.” Make a habit of re-reading your e-mails before hitting “send” and adding a connecting sentence. This can prevent your tone from coming across as blunt or dictatorial.
Sign off in a friendly manner with your first name, such as “Best regards, Elizabeth,” or “Thanks, Elizabeth.” Insert this before your signature file which generally contains your full name. Inserting your first name suggests a more personal, friendly tone.

The bottom line is this: we judge ourselves by our intentions, but we judge others by their actions. Make adding warmth an intentional connecting habit and you’ll tame the tone gap, come across as you want and achieve the results you desire.

In the relationship that I unintentionally damaged recently I used only 2 out of the 3 tips above. I failed to add the warm connecting sentence.I wonder if it would have made all the difference?