Coach's Corner

A selection from frequently–asked questions

Dear Coach,

My job involves the supervision of a project team that has more than twenty people in various parts of the world. Last week I decided to send out an email which reviewed all the accomplishments of the past year, some expanded assignments for the coming year and my best wishes to all for the coming holiday season.

Most recipients responded well but the backlash from a few knocked me off my feet! They were really upset that I was "so insensitive and disrespectful of their feelings”. I had apparently "crossed the line”, in their impression, "and it’s going to be a long time before I will recover their trust”. What on earth did I do wrong here?

Ah, the ‘demon email’! We all know that it is a precarious tool for communication despite its many and significant advantages. In this particular case, Marshall McLuhan may well have hit the nail on the head when he said that the medium is the message. You have three different messages but used a single medium.

Real conversations (one, possibly two of your messages) rarely work in email format. It is especially dangerous for those conversations that are emotionally charged, complex, multi-phased and in other ways sensitive in content (like assigning work). Such conversations depend on the full spectrum of communication and happen best in real time.

Merhabian has demonstrated that just seven percent of any message is dependent on the words used, thirty-eight percent on the tone employed and the majority, fifty-five percent, on the associated body language. Email has all of the words, only a fraction of the tone and none of the body language so we’re behind the eight ball from the start.

There are many occasions when email will do the job very effectively: asking for a meeting; sending an invitation; confirming an event or situation; conveying information for later discussion; summarizing a discussion / affirming a course of action; etc, etc.

Only the first intention, reviewing the accomplishments of the past year, would possibly fall into this category. I might add here that if your intention was to convey more than a simple confirmation of previously-held discussions you could be on thin ice here too. In other words, if the first and only place I hear acknowledgment of my contributions is in this email, I could be justifiably ‘miffed’!

The second intention, to give news of ‘some expanded assignments for the coming year’, is even more provocative. If this is the first indication of incoming work and I’m already contributing to the point of life imbalance or if I feel that I’m not being respected for my unique abilities, I’m going to be wholly dissatisfied by this medium of communication. I’ll want my responses to be acknowledged and considered and if there’s no latitude for this, I’m going to be very frustrated and even incensed.

The email message appears to proceed relentlessly despite my objections and concerns and this makes you "insensitive and disrespectful” in my eyes. You do not detect or respond to my legitimate concerns, which you probably would have done had we been face-to-face, so I shall make assumptions of the worst kind which you, in your regrettable ignorance, will live down to.

I may compound this by pushing back, also by email (since it was, after all, your medium of choice). You are insensitive so I shall communicate with you at a level you will understand and, if I can, I’ll go one better. The situation deteriorates!

Now the crowning touch – it confirms everything I have just learned about you, completely overwhelming anything positive from the past. Your seasonal greetings are so superficial and obviously insincere that you can only spare a few seconds to tack them onto the end of another email! Why did you even bother?

You can see clearly how this great intention ran off the rails. In real-time, face–to-face contact, it would have been caught at the first non-verbal flicker in my face, but you are totally (email) blind. I always imagine that writing a complex email is akin to running full tilt into a dark room filled with heavy furniture; Why would I do it - other than as a last resort?

So, what could you do?

Don’t use email for sensitive issues like assigning work, reinforcing contributions, coaching and counselling, or dealing with personal or emotional issues unless there’s simply no other option. When you have to do it, proceed cautiously, one idea at a time, testing for feedback and responses as you go.

Recognizing the importance of non-verbal cues, use video conferencing if you have it, or the telephone if not. Listen carefully, especially if on the ‘phone, closing your eyes and imagining the other party from the audible clues; this can often alert you to problems as they emerge. Listen for pauses, hesitations, shifts in language, changes in tonality and most of all for silences; never assuming that silence means agreement!

Where you have to use email, break it down into ‘bite-sized pieces’ and gather agreement as you go forward. Check for others' assumptions and suspend – as in hang out for all to see – any assumptions you’re making. If you are challenged, stop and clarify completely – do not proceed until everyone is satisfied that they fully understand your point.

Use lots of reinforcement, affirmations, frequent summaries and open-ended questions along the way. Seek alternative interpretations, suggestions and expressions whenever you can, sharing the context (the ‘whys’ behind the ‘whats’) so that others can find their own reasons to buy into the proposed course of action.

Relationships take forever to build yet can be destroyed in seconds. A final analogy: when you find yourself on thin ice, move very cautiously and spread your message over the greatest possible area to minimize the danger of sudden breakthrough and the icy bath that follows.

I hope this helps.