Kerry Patterson is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.
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?
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.