What to do when...you're caught in an email war

The opportunities for misunderstandings, misinterpretations and conflict over email are many. Without meaning too - it's not hard to end up in the middle of a conflict on email that you have to work your way out of - even if you're not sure how it started in the first place!

With most people receiving at least 100 emails a day at work - it's easy to understand how quick messages, sent when you're in a hurry, stressed or thinking about something else, may not be your (or someone else's) best literary effort.

But an email war does not do anybody any good.

For a start it's not an efficient way to resolve an issue or seek a resolution to a business problem. And nobody comes out of a written email conflict with an enhanced business reputation - especially if it's a public battle and there are lots of people copied or included on the email.

You could be caught in an email battle (or be caught in an ambush) in a variety of ways.

You've sent off a quick email and it's been misinterpreted and elicited an angry response. There are more than enough challenges ensuring that what you mean is what people actually understand you to mean when you are talking to them. And that's when you have the benefit of your body language, pitch and tone of voice to help convey what you mean. In writing it's even harder! Something you write sounding one way in your head can be taken quite another on email.

Alternatively someone is frustrated by a situation and fires off a message with half the world (well, it seems like it) included or cc'd on the message. Their reason may have been fine (these are all the people involved in the issue, they think) but what they actually do is create a messy situation that results in multiple emails and often confusion about who is doing what. (The saying about too many cooks in a kitchen applies to email as well!) Someone gets upset, a little bit terse and before you know it the emails are flying back and forth and a proverbial mountain has been made out of the molehill.

Or even worse (I think) is the person who sends emails and copies their manager or other 'important' people in order to get a response. I think this is a very heavy handed approach and akin to bullying. It certainly  demonstrates that the person the email has been sent to isn't trusted to do what has been asked. (There's a lot to this topic of email cc'ing that I'll tackle in my next post!) Or that the person sending it is too lazy to negotiate!

What it often comes down to is that the person who has been copied often feels the need to weigh in on the issue, be directive or want explanations and you have more email havoc!

Whoever starts it or however you got involved (your fault or not) the trick is how to get out of the conflict, resolve the issue and ensure that relationships and reputations (particularly yours!) are not damaged.

Consider these options:

Get off email

The best way I've found to diffuse the situation is to take the issue off email and call or go to see the key person involved.

You'll have the advantage of being able to ask questions, get immediate answers and be able to respond appropriately in a very short time frame. You'll also be able to use body language and voice tones and intonations (both yours and theirs) to support the communication. This will help you understand where they are coming from and assist you reinforce or position what you are saying. A little bit of gentle humor can work wonders in a conversation. On email it often doesn't work at all.

An actual conversation can really help take the heat out of a situation that is about to implode on email.

Making contact offline also shows that you have prioritized the issue and are concerned about their position by taking the time, interest and energy to make a call. It is usually well worth the effort. And if a 5 minute phone call saves 5 emails back and forth in all probability it's going to be a lot faster!

Talk to the key person 

The situation is going to dictate who is the best person for you to talk to about the issue. If an email is only between you and one other person - then they're the one you call!

But if there are multiple people involved - have a quick think what is the cleverest way to get to the best resolution. If it's your manager or senior stakeholder you will want to talk to them.

Depending on the situation it may be that another quick call to one of the others involved to find out the information you need or agree on the resolution is needed before you make the call to your manager.

If there are delays in getting a response or the answer you need I would make a call to the senior person and let them know why you're calling, what you are doing to resolve the issue and exactly when you will be back to them with more information.

If you do need to reply by email:

Be clear

There are some circumstances (time zones, availability etc.) where the issue has to stay on email.

Be really clear in what you write; don't say anything that can be subject to misinterpretation. Ask someone to proof read your response to make sure that your meaning is obvious.

Take the emotion out

Don't reply to an email when you are angry or emotional. Go for a walk, do something else and it at all possible, leave it until the next day before you respond. Angry exchanges back and forth will ignite, not resolve, a situation.

Remove the cc's

If you do need to respond by email it's better if you can do it without an audience. Whoever has been copied is likely to have opinions or want to become involved - which will just add complexity to the resolution of the issue.

Communicate with the other party involved directly. Once you have achieved the outcome you can then go back to the cc's and let them know the outcome. Most will be relieved that the problem is solved and that they haven't had to be subject to multiple emails.

Manage expectations

If there's going to be a time lag before there is a conclusion you might want to send just one email and let people know what is happening and that you will let them know the outcome. You'll be seen as professional, the emails will be reduced and most importantly everyone can get on with business.

A follow up note

Every time I suggest that calling or going to see the person involved might be an effective way of resolving an issue I get comments like "but I need an email trail" or "there won't be a record of who said what". 

Which is true.

But I think it's often used as an excuse to stay behind the safety of a keyboard rather than have to have a tough conversation. And unfortunately some organizational cultures require that you cover your back by having proof of everything that happens (the business equivalent of a Kevlar vest?)

The way around this is to send a follow up email after any offline conversations or agreements. For example,  "Just a quick note to confirm our agreement on .... to ...." or " A short note to thank you for helping to resolve..." 

This provides another chance to confirm the outcome, reinforce your professionalism and gives you a record of what was discussed or agreed.

George Clemenceau once said, It’s far easier to make war than peace. When it comes to email I reckon, It’s far easier to take the time to resolve a conflict than deal with the consequences!

Thanks for the chat! - Karen

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