Email Isn't Dialogue, It's Serial Monologue
I've just come home from some Professional Development for myself, a 4-day speakers intensive in Hobart. It was a brilliant week (you can read more about it here), however when I returned home, it's taken a few days to get back on top of things on the home front.
As you may know, I have 4 kids (which sometimes feels like 1000 kids), and with 4 kids comes multiple, MULTIPLE emails and notifications via school, and kindy, and various sporting clubs and friends birthday parties etc.
It really got me thinking about how many emails we send.... and receive as part of our daily lives.
According to recent data, the number of emails sent and received per day (worldwide) is 347.3 billion. How many of them are you responsible for sending? And how many are sitting in your inbox?
We live in an era where our lives - professional and personal - are managed over email. Regardless of whether we’re communicating with a colleague down the corridor or a connection on the other side of the world, an email (or text) is considered the acceptable form of communication.
In short, it’s become the norm to shoot off a quick email rather than pick up the phone, or go face-to-face, and have a ‘real’ conversation. Convenience is king (or queen) but in the process, we’re losing the art of conversation or, more importantly, the art of Courageous Conversations.
It takes courage to have a hard conversation. An easier option is to take the path of avoidance and (try to) initiate a hard conversation via email. And that’s where the real trouble begins.
Trying to have a hard conversation via email is like trying to construct a partially built IKEA flatpack without instructions OR an Allen key. It’s confusing and messy.
Emotions and intentions will be misconstrued.
You’ll both have different ideas on where to start or when/if you’re finished. It will be difficult to secure the agreement you need to move things forward.
Over email, it’s much harder to seek or gain clarity. You lose valuable non-verbal cues; you can’t see the other person's reaction and adjust your approach/tone accordingly. You can’t test your assumptions.
When we’re on the receiving end of this, all we have is the text in front of us and not a lot to go on. Just the story we’re telling ourselves.
That’s before we even get into misinterpretation, misunderstanding and ambiguity.
Or what about when we hit send and then find out important information afterwards? And there’s always that ‘Forward’ button that can be used in the heat of the moment (with some choice comments). Let’s also not forget the unnecessary ‘cc’ for when things are getting really ‘serious’, and we need to make sure so-and-so’s manager knows what’s going on. And of course, when things escalate, the dreaded ‘reply all’!
Simply put: email is not a substitute for a conversation. It’s not a dialogue, it’s a series of monologues.
Not only is it not going to get the outcomes you want, research last year found that overreliance on email and texting is a serious impediment to progress: “Excessive use of text-based communication for complex tasks such as negotiating, decision-making or problem-solving, can lower a person’s interest and performance on work started after the conversation is finished.”
So, what can we do instead, when email is the norm but you need to have a REAL conversation?
All Courageous Conversations start with building trust. The time to build trust is not at the point of a courageous conversation! You should be building trust and relationships through small actions over time. Check-in with colleagues. Talk to them about pretty much anything that’s mutual territory. Make the effort to walk to someone’s desk to see how they are. Or pick up the phone/video call and build a connection. The first conversation over the phone or video (for virtual teams) should not be the conversation you’re going to be having about a particular process, system, structure or behaviour.
Establishing relationships and acting consistently will stand you in good stead when you need to have that in-person courageous conversation. You’ll have some trust and understanding in the emotional bank account.
Leave the email to maintain day-to-day tasks, but start building those relationships the good ol’ fashioned way.
Until next time Eat the Frog, Get the Worm, and Be the Bird.
Ally Nitschke is a Leadership Expert, Courageous Conversation Specialist and Speaker. She has been working with leaders and as a Leader for over 15 years. She is on a mission to change the way we communicate at work, to lean into those uncomfortable conversations and lead with courage. Ally delivers Courageous Conversations Programs, Courageous Leadership programs, Coaching, Mentoring and Keynotes. To inquire about her working with you or your organisation please contact us here.