When it comes to clear communication, email can be difficult terrain to navigate. Have you ever felt that your message has been misconstrued? Or mistakenly taken offence at an innocent response? The confusion is often resolved, but frequent misunderstandings impact our relationships and productivity.
In face-to-face conversations, we interpret a huge amount of meaning from non-verbal cues. It’s no wonder, then, that the emails we send and receive are often misinterpreted. In the absence of facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice, words are left vicariously open to misunderstanding. We fill in the blanks and sometimes come away with a different message to that which the sender intended.
So what causes our misinterpretations, and how can we decrease the risk of them happening? Our emotional state of mind determines much of the meaning that we extract from emails, combined with our preset expectations about the sender. Here are three ways to take back control and avoid email misunderstandings:
Stop and breathe. If we think we’ve received a rude email, our initial response is usually to write an equally cutting rebuttal. But this makes us feel even worse, which increases the likelihood of even more misinterpretation! We usually regret sending an angry email once our mood has improved.
Even if a message has been written with ill-intent, an angry exchange is unlikely to achieve much. Be conscious of the negative mindset that the message has evoked. Only respond when you feel more at-ease.
Be conscious that you may misinterpreted the message – even if you’re sure you know the sender and their intentions. Consider other possible tones of voice and scenarios. For example, a simple “Yes.” might seem blunt and rude, but the sender could have meant it with the most positive of intentions. Without vocal or visual cues, you can’t rule out other possibilities.
If you’re unsure of the meaning of an email, ask for clarification rather than jumping to conclusions. If the situation allows it, a phone call can resolve things quickly and personably. When doing this via email, use “my” or “I” to take responsibility for your interpretation. For example “My understanding is that…”, followed by “Have I understood correctly?” invites far more open discussion than “Did you mean…?”
So take a moment to step back and become more conscious of your emotional reactions to emails. By doing so, you may find that you in turn write more effective emails too.
I was taught this exercise many years ago by a wise old friend named Charlie. I was bemoaning someone being in my way and Charlie put his hand on my arm.