Crucial Conversations QA

Communicating Over E-mail

Kerry Patterson is the author of the New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.Kerry Patterson is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.

Crucial Conversations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

I used to think I was kind and careful with my words, but I am a month and a half into a new job and feel I can’t trust myself to communicate well over e-mail at all. The time-sensitive nature of solving problems for people means I can’t always ask for the feedback that would help them feel respected, and I find that the tone of my words is rarely interpreted the way I meant them. Do you have any advice for holding crucial conversations over e-mail?

Electronically Challenged

A  Dear Challenged,

As you’re suggesting, real conversations rarely occur via e-mail. That makes e-mail a particularly dangerous tool for engaging in a crucial conversation. When stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong, that’s the one time you really need to make use of a genuine, face-to-face conversation. You need all of your faculties for reading the other person’s reaction and electronic tools can severely limit this. To make matters worse, when you’re typing messages back and forth (often separated by a fair amount of time), there’s no room for subtle give and take. For instance, in a face-to-face discussion you might immediately pick up on the other person’s reticence to comply with a request and choose to back off and try a different tactic. You have no such option when you type out your entire request and then wait for a response.

I know I’m preaching to the choir, but allow me to continue with some of the challenges of electronic communication. Imagine writing a lengthy request you know will be difficult for the other person to complete. You also suspect the work you’re asking the other person to do will put his or her work-life balance at risk. That’s not the kind of thing you want to communicate via e-mail. Inevitably, such a request would lay out every element of the project. To the receiver, that would look like one demand heaped upon another—creating stress, concern, and even anger.

I’ve found myself reading such electronic requests and becoming miffed because the other person seems to blindly plow along with further demands despite my growing frustration. While he or she can’t see the frustration on my face, I assume he or she is just being insensitive to my clearly hostile reaction.

Then, of course, time and distance only make matters worse. As I push back from the offensive e-mail request, I fill in the detail about the other person’s motives. Because I can’t see the concern on his or her face or detect the warmth in his or her voice, I assume he or she doesn’t care about me. This person is cold and calculating and not at all in touch with the fact that I will now miss my daughter’s birthday thanks to the request.

It’s little wonder you’re concerned about holding crucial conversations by e-mail. Bad things can happen when you do—particularly when people don’t know you very well. So here are few steps you can take to eliminate or at least lessen the risks.

First, don’t hold truly crucial conversations via e-mail. Whether you’re making a request, offering an unpopular opinion, or disagreeing with someone in a position of power—whatever the high-stakes dynamics—do everything in your power to hold a face-to-face conversation.

If you can’t meet face-to-face, then find a reasonable substitute. Try talking by means of video-chat software. There can be short delays with this medium, but this form of conversation allows for a simple statement, followed by a pause that allows the other person to respond before you’ve plowed on ahead with a massive request. You can also see brows furrowing and other signs of hesitation or even anger and quickly take steps to mitigate the reaction.

If you don’t have video capabilities, a handy invention created on March 10th of 1876 can be of great assistance. Although the telephone cuts off visual clues, it does allow for two important elements of a healthy conversation. One, you can speak, pause, and allow the other person to speak, avoiding the data dump of a single written missive. Two, you can notice pauses, tone of voice changes, and other vocal indicators that the other person is feeling reticent or emotional. Since you’ll miss visual cues, you’ll have to take special care to listen for signs of stress, but you can typically pick up signs before the conversation spins out of control.

I recently asked my son-in-law, who constantly holds high-stakes conversations with people all over the world, what he does to succeed given the challenge of distance, lack of visual cues, multiple parties on the line, and language differences. His response came immediately: “I listen for pauses, tension, and other signs that not everyone is on board with the proposal. I also take special care to invite the opinion of individuals who have remained largely silent. I never assume silence is a sign of agreement. In fact, I assume the opposite until I hear genuine confirmation.”

Now, if you’re facing circumstances where you can only communicate electronically, then use the medium as an invitation to a real conversation. Explain that you need to chat as quickly as possible. Don’t lead with your controversial content. Instead, start with a simple invitation.

Finally, if you don’t have time for a delayed response, then start your request tactfully and tentatively. Since people don’t know you very well, it sounds as if they may be making the worst rather than the best assumptions about your sensitivity to their circumstances. With time, as others learn about your caring nature and willingness to cooperate, people will begin to trust you and you can communicate by multiple methods.

Until then, when forced to follow an electronic path, apologize for using e-mail for making a challenging request. You’d much prefer to talk face-to-face, but demands require immediate action. Explain that you’re sensitive to the other person’s differing opinion or horrendous workload (or whatever it is that will put you at odds), and then lay out (1) the reason you’re pressed for time and (2) the rationale behind this specific request. This typically includes the consequences you, others, and the company will experience if the request isn’t met. Take care to share the context, not just your demands. Then tactfully ask if the other person can comply or can come up with an alternate solution. Finally, thank the other person for his or her kind consideration and end by asking for an immediate response so you know where you stand.

Once again, this is the sort of thing you do only when you have no alternative or if you already have a relationship of mutual respect and trust with the other person.


From the Road

From the Road: The Introvert Convention

Steve WillisSteve Willis is a Master Trainer and Vice President of Professional Services at VitalSmarts.

From the Road

A little while back, I showed up for a class and found myself surrounded by introverts. And not just any old introverts, I’m talking about an elite group of genetically enhanced super-introverts hand picked from across the company to attend my class.

I asked a question . . . silence. I waited them out . . . in silence. We watched funny videos . . . (you guessed it) in silence. And just to be clear, I’m talking the kind that’s way beyond the sound of silence that Simon and Garfunkel were singing about.

Anyway , nuff said about my group. I’m interested in your input here. Write in and tell me what you’ve done to work with a group like this one. Yours truly . . . in silence.

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Surviving the Holidays

The following article was first published on November 24, 2004.

As we embark on two months of holiday gatherings, many of us are wondering what it’ll take to survive the unavoidable conflicts that lie ahead. Friends and loved ones will gather around a cornucopia of recently harvested food and, despite their best efforts to avoid all things hostile, controversial topics will weasel their way into the conversation.

Here’s your common holiday fare. Dad denounces his firstborn for canceling out his vote in the latest election. Granny asks her grandniece why she’s dressed like a hussy—Halloween has already passed. Mom plays the martyr as she tries to guilt-trip anyone who walks through the kitchen into working. She’s been serving up heaping spoonfuls of guilt along with the feast for years.

Eventually, two or more loved ones end up in a contentious debate. What starts out as a pleasant gathering with relatives wassailing each other left and right, transforms into a scene from A Jerry Springer Holiday. And as a result (to put a twist on Jim Croce’s famous tune), we think about the gatherings that lie ahead and we all come down with: “The steadily depressin’, low down mind messin’, celebratin’ holiday blues.”

In fact, 85 percent of the readers we recently polled stated that their family holiday gatherings include at least one heated argument where a valued relationship suffers. Rather than strengthening family bonds with each holiday gathering, one more link in the chain of family unity is further corroded. I speak from experience.

As a boy, I looked forward to each Thanksgiving and Christmas season more than any other time of year. It was a time when I got to sit next to my brother, dad, grandfather, and uncle and watch football. I don’t remember much about the games, but I can still smell the faint aroma of granddad’s nickel cigar and feel the afterglow of the camaraderie that enveloped each event. At dinner, the men would compete for who could load up their plate the highest while the women mockingly chided them for courting a coronary. Of course, nothing earth shaking happened at these gatherings. I guess if the world looked in on these events they would think they were sappy. I thought they were wonderful. We loved and respected each other and it showed.

So why was it that when my beloved family members met in full force for the last time (before kids married and moved away and grandparents passed on), I had to be such a moron? I was now an adult fresh out of grad school where I learned all about the importance of theoretical rigor and solid methodology. So when my cousin mentioned that she was “into” subliminal learning, I couldn’t help myself. Not only did she believe that if she played audio tapes while she slept her brain would magically take it all in (something that had been discredited years earlier), but she also believed that if she listened to her favorite guru yammer on about who knows what, she would be healed.

No sooner had she announced to the crowd that she was speeding down the subliminal highway to sound mental health than I laid into her arguments like a pit bull on a pork chop. Unfortunately, her claims couldn’t be disproved. Her arguments always ended with, “but it works for me.” She was a master at ducking scientific inquiry. For instance, years later she moved a chair in her living room to “alter the room’s karma,” and sure enough she was “back on the road to psychic balance”—or so she claimed.

Not being able to discredit my cousin’s arguments, I pointed out that the one-room-school over a garage where she currently studied family therapy wasn’t a school at all—it was a loosely-coupled gathering of flakes and charlatans. I offered up this heart-felt remark to no effect. In fact, my cousin merely smiled knowingly. I hated that smile. It hit me like a punch to the forehead.

So I punched back. Quickly I moved from lobbing cheap shots to launching a full-fledged personal attack. As I raised my voice, the spirit in the room changed from merriment to discord. My tone clanked against the pleasant background music and gentle chatter. All by myself I defiled the very spirit of the holidays. All by myself I upset the delicate balance of the successful family shindig. And hot dang, I was proud.

My cousin rose to the fight, matching insult with insult. Soon we were one more casualty in the book of failed holiday gatherings—all because of one thing. I just had to be right. I just had to set the record straight. I just had to attack the faulty details. And then for years to come, instead of apologizing for taking a sacred family tradition and sullying it with ill will, I acted as if what I had done was somehow noble.

That’s right. I was just doing my part to defend sound logic and thinking. Others could listen politely while my cousin raised idiocy to an art form, but I wouldn’t take it. I’d challenge her outlandish claims and if I hurt her feelings in the process or dealt the family gathering a death blow, that’s the price I’d pay for defending scientific rigor. All great things come at a price.

This was my story and I stuck to it for two decades.

So, here’s why 85 percent of the people we recently polled experience discord right along with their annual mug of eggnog. Every family gathering that has been brought to its knees by a heated and unsuccessful confrontation contains two or more participants who not only refuse to apologize for their role in the debacle, but who justify their mean-spirited and selfish attacks by explaining that they were merely defending a core value—and how wrong can that be?

Dad wants nothing more than to help sonny-boy come to his senses. That’s why he tries to set him straight. Granny wants her grandniece to quit sending the wrong message with her scandalous attire—so she won’t attract the wrong guys. Mom just wants some credit for all that she does for everyone—is that asking too much?

Let me break from the pack by making a pact. This year I’m not going to sacrifice family unity no matter what anyone says—or no matter how important the value I think I’m defending. Should a cousin announce that her health has greatly improved since she’s started eating a bushel of pine cones for breakfast while spinning hubcaps on her thumbs, I won’t laugh out loud. I’ll ask why and then actually listen. And if I still have a different view, I’ll express it in a pleasant and caring way.

Here’s my plan. I’m going to start every discussion by asking what I really want. Does everyone really have to believe what I believe? Do I really have to win each and every point?

One thing’s for sure—I don’t want to turn every gathering into an event where you can’t talk about anything substantive; I just want to talk about interesting and important issues in a way that doesn’t violate the spirit of the holidays. I want my own children to enjoy the sweet taste of healthy family discourse, good will, and genuine camaraderie. And to keep on track, I’ll continually ask myself: “What is it that I really want?” That’s the plan.

Who’s with me?