When to use email - and when not
8th August 2015
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I got a call from a former work colleague recently inviting me to join him for a drink.  Nothing unusual in that you might think and I probably would have agreed with you except that I hadn’t heard from him for at least ten years.  I said I’d meet him, more out of curiosity than anything else.

I arrived first.  He was late and I remembered that was one of his annoying traits.  We exchanged small talk as people do when they don’t know what to say to one another.  He had married Jenny in Accounts and they had two children.  I wondered what he really wanted to say to me.

“I’ve got a real problem at work,” he said suddenly.  He took out his smartphone and began to interrogate it.  Then he passed it to me and I read the email.  At one point I think my mouth dropped wide open and I had to close it again quickly.  I don’t think he noticed.

It amazes me how unaware so many people are of the dangers with communicating by email.  When we communicate naturally we do so on many levels.  We use our eyes: facial expressions: gestures: body language: the tone of our voice: and our words.  These elements combine together to convey our message.  When we write an email we are relying on just one of these elements – our words.  And yet so many of us are still surprised when our words are not read in the way in which we meant when we wrote them and problems arise as a result.

My old colleague’s email read like a rant.  His passion had got the better of him.  He was critical of decisions made by senior management colleagues and in a way that I believe would have been construed as confrontational by almost anyone reading it.  In fact it read as if he had real contempt for his boss and the rest of the company’s senior management team.

I knew that wasn’t true.  He had always been loyal to the company.  He had stayed when they went through a difficult time yet others, including me, had fled.  He cared passionately about the continued success of the business; and that was the problem.  He believed some recent decisions made by the Board had been wrong and he was concerned that the new strategic direction taken might impact negatively on customers and so on the future profitability of the business.  He had blurted it all out in the email.

He looked very worried when he added, “I’ve been told that it will be the end of my career if I send another email like that.  Frankly, I can’t see what I’ve done wrong; I was telling it as it is.  What do you think?”

It was hard to know where to start.  I explained how I had interpreted his email and he looked shocked.  “It’s not only what you say that matters,” I added, “it’s the way you say it.”

“What do I do now,” he pleaded.  I advised him to get a meeting with his Line Manager, apologise, and then explain what he really meant to say.  Next, I gave him a good tip on how to approach difficult subjects in an email – don’t.

Emails are a great way to communicate simple and straightforward messages easily and quickly.  For sensitive subjects and difficult issues, rely on communicating as Nature intended.  Talking face-to-face gives you flexibility.  You can see if what you are saying is being received well and, if not, you can change tack.  If it’s clearly going wrong you can even stop talking before you make it worse.  You can backtrack and repair any damage.

All in all, talking is a lot safer and less likely to damage your career.

About the Author

Kelvin M

Member since: 6th August 2015

Locally-based, Kelvin is a Business Communications Consultant with www.eXceeding.co.uk, the business services provider.

In a successful career, he has held senior positions in retail operations with some...

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