Why did you ask that question?

It has been about two weeks since I received an email that rocked my world. Not in a good way. I let it ruin my day off, cause me to doubt my abilities, and lead me to decide to keep my head down and stop trying to improve my library’s work environment.

WORDSThat lasted about 24 hours.  The next time I saw the person, I asked her to come into my office and we began to discuss the email.  What I learned was that it was sent in a flurry of answering multiple emails and her lack of a normal salutation changed the entire tone of the message. Discovering the intent of the email helped set things right and we realized that we were both on the same page and the clarifying conversation strengthened our working relationship.

My take-away from that experience:

1. Never assume you know the person’s intentions. Digital communication can streamline and improve today’s workplace in ways that formal meetings and advance appointments never could.  It provides instant feedback on projects, facilitates problem solving for those who work in different departments and on different days, and can be shared instantly with all concerned. The drawback is that the send button is easy to push, and that action is irreversible.  Understanding this when receiving an email that puts you off can open the door to conversations that actually strengthen relationships. The key is knowing the sender and trusting their intentions instead of taking words at their face value.

2. Always reply, but use the reply button thoughtfully.  Were there others who received the same email? Do they also need to see the reply? Is this a joint effort? If the answers are yes, then don’t forget to reply to all. If the answer is that your reply may not be for everyone’s eyes, then consider a face-to-face.  In my situation, there were others on the send list and everyone read the email with a different opinion of what was said.  This had the potential to cause some really hurt feelings.  Instead of replying digitally, talking to the person face-to-face and then following it up with a strategic planning meeting was the right course of action. Not replying can be just as bad as sending a knee-jerk reply. You wouldn’t walk out on an in-person conversation, so why would we walk away from a digital conversation? Sometimes all the reply needs to say is, “Thanks.” or “Will do.”

3. Always use a salutation and a closing message, and think about when the missive is sent. Emails are not the same as text messages. In today’s every day practice we not only use our smart phones for texting, but to receive and reply to emails. Remembering that an email will be read on multiple device platforms and by readers in many different situations helps keep the tone professional. I once sent an email to a colleague in Great Britain.  I knew the email would arrive in the deep of the night, but I wasn’t concerned about that because it was an email not a text, and they would open it when they got to work in the morning.  Not the case.  A sleepy-eyed response was immediately sent my way with a subtle reminder that it was two o’clock in the morning. When using email, I now save my middle of the night musings to the draft folder to be reread and then sent in the light of day.

I find it interesting that the same words that we intend to improve situations or inform readers of events can be read in so many different ways. Learning this lesson has dramatically changed all of my email messages this week.  I have slowed down, reread and thought about how the words will sound to the reader.  I hope my friend has done the same.  Communication is hard. Doing it right is the key to success.