Email Wars: The Confusion, Cost and Casualties of Miscommunication

28 Jun 2017

Email Wars: The Confusion, Cost and Casualties of Miscommunication

Severe miscommunication is more widespread than you may think

Miscommunication - Email Wars

Effective face-to-face communication relies on each person understanding the words and sentences spoken, the suggestions afforded by the tone of voice and the non-verbal language – and then responding appropriately. From my 20 odd (sometimes very odd!) years of experience, it’s clear that miscommunication – people misunderstanding each other – occurs more frequently than we might like to admit. Part of the problem is that it’s easy for both parties to a conversation to think a communication has been successful.

This is how communication typically occurs: I communicate my message in a way I believe is clear. You hear my message and the tone in which I deliver it. You also see my non-verbal language and believe you’ve understood.

Great! We’re both happy!

However, how do I know that the interpretation you have in your head is the same as the intention I have in my head?

The answer, of course, is that I don’t. It may be minutes, months or years before we realise miscommunication has occurred.

Communication is more than just words

The tone of voice conveys an enormous amount in any verbal message, and the non-verbal language that goes along with it accounts for an even bigger percentage. On top of this, your beliefs, opinions, values and the level of trust you have in a person will colour how you’ll interpret their communication. Your ability to read non-verbal language and to establish a match with the verbal component is also critical to your understanding.

The written word is different

When we’re emailing or texting, we don’t have the benefits that tone of voice and non-verbal language bring to a conversation. We can only read the words on the screen.

There are no non-verbal signals to pick up on and no tone of voice — just the ‘tone’ of the words. Your previous history of the person will determine the tone in which you read their message. Add a negative tone when you read it, and it could be the beginning of a conflict.

I’ve done a fair bit of mediation and conflict resolution

With that experience I’ve found large percentage of these conflicts began with miscommunication through badly worded and/or misinterpreted emails.

This is typically how problems begin:

Janine sends an email to her colleague Aaron who works on the other side of a large, open office. They don’t have a close relationship because Aaron hasn’t worked there for very long. Janine is multi-tasking when she sends the email and doesn’t put a lot of thought into what she writes or how she words it. She doesn’t include an explanation to ensure her points are clear. Aaron, when reading the email perceives it in a uniquely different way to how Janine intended.

He becomes riled by the wording and the tone with which he has imbued it

He doesn’t respond to Janine’s email immediately; he stews on it. By the time he goes to grab a coffee, he’s worked himself into a bit of a lather about it. He tells a sympathetic co-worker who happens to be at the coffee machine, about the email. When he gets back to his desk, he’s quite incensed and, you guessed it, fires off a nasty email to Janine, effectively launching the first missile.

Email war is about to break out!

Janine is furious by Aaron’s response. She reviews her original email and cannot find a way to justify Aaron’s response to it; it seems a perfectly OK email to her (but there again she reads it with her original intent in mind!). She responds to his email in a similar tone to his, launching a hand grenade in his direction.

Escalation is all but inevitable

Not only will Janine and Aaron fall out with one another, but in their attempts to avoid face-to-face conflict they’ll also manage to create a massive fallout with others in the office, creating two opposing forces in the process. It’s usually after the team leader has become involved that a mediator is called in.

So who was at fault in this massive miscommunication?

Janine for not taking care with her email? Or Aaron for responding angrily? I believe they both are. But if we are apportioning blame, I would lay more of it with Aaron. Why? He could have walked over to Janine’s desk (or even called her up) and — before he got angry — simply checked in with Janine to see if what he understood from her email was what she meant.

Email warfare would have been averted

The issue would have been resolved quickly and easily and probably resulted in a better relationship between Janine and Aaron in future. But now most of the office staff are at odds with one another. There’s very little chance of a resolution in the present climate. In fact, it will take months, if not years, to rebuild trust in the office.

The morals of the story: There are three!
  1. Take care writing emails (and texts). Re-read them before you send them. Ask yourself, “Can this be misinterpreted?” If your answer is ‘yes’ – then polish it up, so it’s more understandable, or better still, talk to the person (yes, I know talking is weird these days!)
  2. If you receive an email that seems a bit ‘off’, go and see the person who wrote it if possible, or call them if it’s not. Find out the intention behind their email.
  3. If you’re finding it difficult to write an email without worrying about how it will be received, then don’t send it. Go and see the person or pick up the phone and talk to them instead.

By following these three simple protocols, you’ll avoid the confusion, costs and casualties of miscommunication and possibly avert hostile relations with your coworkers.