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From the Road

How do you hold a Crucial Conversation over e-mail?

In a perfect world, Crucial Conversations would always be held face-to-face. The benefits of immediate feedback and nonverbal communication makes dialogue much more rich and accurate.

However, today’s global and distributed workforce doesn’t always allow for face-to-face interactions. When you’re in Singapore and need to communicate to co-workers in Germany, Brazil, and the United States, the distance, time zones, and different cultures can create huge barriers to dialogue. The next best option to face-to-face interactions is to use video conferencing for a virtual in-person meeting. Even a phone call preserves some of the nuances of conversation.

When those options aren’t available, you can still use many Crucial Conversations skills in e-mail communication. Because you won’t be able to use Learn to Look to notice when safety is at risk, you may need to work harder than usual to establish safety during high-stakes e-mail conversations. This is an ideal time to use contrasting statements to clarify your good intent up front. This will ensure the e-mail recipient understands you want to be helpful or gain understanding—not questioning or accusing them.

When you use STATE skills in e-mail, be sure your facts are clear. Then be very tentative with any story you tell. Be sure you own the story as your perception, not as an accusation or a conclusion. When you Ask for Others Path in an e-mail, be specific about the response you want.

For example, let’s say you’ve been collaborating with someone on the other side of the world on an important report. You drafted a summary of the report and sent it to your co-worker. In response, you received a complete rewrite with a single-sentence e-mail that said, “This may work better.” This isn’t the process you agreed on, so you need to address the apparent disconnect. Your e-mail might sound something like:

“I got your e-mail with the rewrite of the report. I just want to check in with you on the process we’re following. I’m not unhappy with any of the work you do; I’ve enjoyed collaborating with you a lot. I just want to make sure we’re seeing the process the same way. I thought we had agreed that I would write a first draft of the report based on our collective research. When I sent you the draft, I was expecting to get your comments. Instead, I got a complete rewrite of the report. I’m a little confused by this and am wondering if we’re seeing our roles in this process differently. I’d really like to talk with you about this rather than exchange e-mails. Could you give me a couple of times that would be good for us to talk about this in person?”

If it’s impossible to talk in person, your question might be, “Could you share with me your understanding of our roles in creating this report?” Then you can get the other person’s perspective and go from there.

Two-way communication is always best. But when you have to use e-mail to address difficult issues, be sure to use Crucial Conversations skills to help move toward dialogue.

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Mark Carpenter

Mark Carpenter brings more than twenty five years of experience in corporate communication and education to the VitalSmarts Facilitator Faculty.

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