Pretty much everyone uses email and instant messaging services to communicate at work today. But without being able to read the other person’s body language, without being able to see their face to draw cues from, the spirit of some messages can be hard to decipher. This can lead to awkward exchanges and misunderstandings.
Sometimes we hear of people will obsessing about emails they received hours ago, trying to decipher its true meaning and significance. Mindfulness training can help people at work overcome the challenges they face both in sending and receiving email.
Time to compose
When sending an email, take the time to actually compose it. Avoid one-line or monosyllabic replies to questions. Don’t send large chunks of text, break it up into paragraphs – these are easier to read, especially on a screen. Review what you’ve written. Is it what you’re trying to say really clear?
Simplicity is key. The simpler the sentence, the less chance that it will be misinterpreted on the receiving end.
Another factor to bear in mind is your relationship to the receiver, as Mirabai Bush writes:
“If there’s a power dynamic (for example, you are writing to somebody who works for you or who reports to you), you need to take into account how that affects the message. A suggestion coming from a superior in an email can easily sound like an order.”
Take a breath
If you receive an email that triggers stress or anxiety, take a few deep breaths before you consider your reply. The “reaction” moment when you get stressed about an email is the worst time to respond. Re-read the email first. It might be that you’ve misinterpreted it. Taking a breath also gives you a moment to consider what the sender was actually trying to say. What you read as criticism might have been a suggestion, what you read as an order may actually have been intended as guidance.
Although it’s not always possible, try to leave some time before responding to an email. Allow yourself the time to reflect on what you’ve read, and the wider context of the situation in question.
Most of us send a variety of emails every day. But that can be a kind of crutch – a way of separating ourselves from the true task in front of us. Emailing can become part of our futile attempt to control everything. And that over-reliance can serve to divide us from others we work with.
If the subject of an email is emotive, maybe email isn’t the best way to convey it. As Soren Gordhamer notes:
“Email is a tool that is helpful in some situations and unhelpful in others. A hammer, for example, is a great tool for pounding nails, but not so good for cutting wood or screwing in screws. Just as it would be difficult to try to build a house with only a hammer, so too is it ineffectual to rely on email as our only means of communication.”
Pick up the phone and talk to the person in question, or better yet: have a face-to-face conversation. You will both feel more confident that you’ve understood each other. This is especially true when it comes to criticism – if you deliver it in a calm, constructive way, the other person is much less likely to react poorly. In fact, they’ll probably appreciate you taking the time to offer it.
Post by: Michael Chaskalson
Based in Cambridge, Michael is the CEO of Mindfulness Works Ltd. and a pioneer in the application of mindfulness to leadership and workplace contexts. He is an adjunct professor at IE Business School in Madrid and a Professor of Practice adjunct at Ashridge Executive Education at Hult International Business School.View profile