Do You Get E-Mail Rage?
Nance Guilmartin, executive coach and communication expert
When was the last time you were driving down the digital highway and felt like you were shot by words?
It happens without warning. You're scanning e-mails and suddenly you're triggered by someone's words or a tone you sense -- or even see; the e-mail is filled with "ALL CAPS" or "Exclamation points!!!" or bold formatting.
Or, here's another hot button: You're in the midst of a public "drive by" e-mail attack, where out of the blue, someone writes an e-mail (without speaking to you first to check their assumptions) and reacts to something you said in a meeting or that you wrote or did. When you see the long list of CC-ed recipients you become furious and shoot back your own defense or offense.
Why does this happen?
Today we're more wired to snap -- especially when using computer keyboards. There's even a physiological trigger pulling us into e-mail shootouts; it's called "e-mail apnea." Thought leader Linda Stone, formerly of Microsoft and Apple computers, coined the phrase after researching a phenomenon she observed while people were under the influence of computing. The urge to quickly react (without considering what you or they may have misunderstood) can affect you -- whether you are the person sending the initial e-mail or the one who receives it.
Stone noticed we hold our breath while cranking out e-mails and doctors confirmed her suspicions. When we hold our breath, the brain is momentarily oxygen deprived and hits the flight or fight response, fueling a more emotional reaction to the words shooting out of our fingers.
What can seem like innocent or understandable venting can cost you your job, damage your reputation and crater your chances for promotion. According to a recent USA Today article by Laura Petrecca, 26 percent of the nearly 600 companies participating in a 2009 Electronic Business Communications Politics and Procedures Survey said they'd fired an employee for e-mail misuse.
What can you do to avoid getting caught up in a drive-by e-mail? Here are five ways to make a U-turn when the inevitable "missed understanding" happens. Before you fire off that e-mail, try these tips:
1. Back away from the computer
Resisting the urge to just "let someone have it" is a sign of self-control and adds points to your reputation. You also raise what I call your "CQ score" of communication intelligence by responding versus reacting.
2. Do not put a name or CC's in the address bar
We all need to vent, and e-mail is an instant venting machine. Just don't set yourself up to be fired by what you write when you're fired up about something. Write it, delete it or park it in your draft box.
3. Vent offline
Ask someone to (confidentially) give you perspective that you can't see when you're blindsided or when you're positive you're right and someone else is wrong. You might be right and win the battle but lose the war. The damage, however, isn't easily undone once you hit the send button.
4. Give people the benefit of the doubt
We often assume we know what someone meant or intended. I call that "assumitis." Instead, rephrase it (in person or via e-mail) using your own words. For example, "It sounds like what you are saying..." or "Let me see if I follow what seems to be the problem here." You'll learn more and increase your CQ as well as your ability to be more responsive and less reactive by surfacing what's between the lines (without instantly explaining or defending yourself).
5. Adopt a get curious not furious™ outlook
Ask, "What am I really reacting to? What's driving the other person to do this?"Then call or go see them in person. Begin by appreciating how easy it is to be misunderstood. Acknowledge that aggravations can pile up and trigger an e-mail volley that leaves a trail that can cost you both long after you wished you'd paused to ask yourself, "What don't I know I don't know?"
You're more valuable to your clients and your company when your high CQ skills turn you into a problem solver and time saver in a world where time and relationships are priceless.
Nance Guilmartin is a keynote entertainer, executive coach, communication expert and author of "The Power of Pause: How to Be More Effective in a Demanding, 24/7 World" and "Healing Conversations: What to Say When You Don't Know What to Say."