David F. Swink

Threat Management

Managing Conflicts With Email: Why It's So Tempting.

Dealing with conflict: Can't I just send an email ;)?

Posted Jan 14, 2010

Email, text, chat, and IM are fantastic innovations. They keep us connected, allow us to communicate quickly, and even type, eat lunch, and read the newspaper all at the same time!

It is very tempting to use electronic media in dealing with the inevitable conflicts and time crunches in life and work. Conflict just doesn't feel good, and people generally avoid it. It may seem easier to deal with conflicts with email, because you don't have to see the recipient's angry facial expressions or hear their seething voice tone. Because of email's asynchronous nature, someone can study what was said and craft their response before they hit the "send" key. They are isolated from the physical intensity of the conflict.

While the splendid isolation from strong emotion may be a comfort for some, it cuts us off from the most valuable information in the conversation. We rely heavily on non-verbal information like facial expression, body posture, gestures, and voice tone during interactions to interpret and predict other people's behavior. In fact, research now indicates that we do this even more than we thought, through our use of "mirror neurons." A Society for Neuroscience paper, adapted from Marco Iacoboni, describes mirror neurons as "a special class of brain cells that fire not only when an individual performs an action, but also when the individual observes someone else make the same movement."

Dr. Iacoboni at the UCLA School of Medicine, observes that before the discovery of mirror neurons, scientists generally believed that our brains use logical thought processes to interpret and predict other people's actions. Now, however, many scientists have come to believe that we understand others not by thinking, but by feeling.

Mirror neurons appear to let us "simulate" not just other people's actions, but the intentions and emotions behind those actions. When you see someone smile, for example, your mirror neurons for smiling also fire up, creating a sensation of the feeling associated with smiling. You don't have to think about what the other person intends by smiling. You experience the meaning immediately and effortlessly. Daniel Goleman explores this concept and the neuroscience of social interactions in his book, Social Intelligence.

Our mirror neurons are not at work, and other communication cues are not present when we are emailing and texting; therefore, we miss a lot of information about what the other person is feeling and experiencing. When we read an email, we automatically try to figure out the "tone," or the emotional undercurrent. We fill in the gaps with what we think the person is feeling or what their intention is. Most people fill in the gaps with the worst-case scenario, especially if they don't know much about the person.

Email can play a role in how we deal with conflicts. We just need to know when and how to use it wisely. Here are some tips for using email in dealing with conflicts.

Use emails in conflicts:

  • When there needs to be a record of the interaction.
  • When dealing with conflicts where the emotional level is fairly low.
  • To have an initial conversation that sets up a phone call, or a meeting to deal with the conflict. 

Do not use emails in conflicts:                        

  • When you've never met the other person face-to-face.
  • When the emotional level is high.
  • When the email has gone back and forth with a person more than 3 times. This could mean that the issue is too complex to deal with using only email.   

Here are some things to consider when dealing with conflicts through email:

  • Don't assume why a person didn't respond to an email or answered your email in a certain manner. Intentions are invisible. Get more information.
  • Monitor your emotions. If you feel triggered by what you read, don't write an immediate reply back and hit "send." You may regret it once you calm down, and by then, it's too late.
  • Save a draft of your reply. Have someone review your draft, or you read it later after you have cooled off, and then send it.
  • Do not rely on emoticons :) or text speak (btw), to convey emotions.
  • Be careful with sarcasm and humor because voice tone is absent and your message could be misinterpreted.
  • If the email fills the screen...pick up the phone. The message is probably too complex to not speak with someone about it.
  • Be careful with "cc's" and the message they send. This may imply that you are ratting a person out to their boss or colleagues.

Have you had some interesting experiences dealing with conflicts using email or text? Please comment and share your experiences and suggestions.