The pitfall of email is that it’s too easy to blurt out a strong reaction by typing in a quick unedited message and sending it irretrievably on its way in the blink of an eye. Also, there’s no tone of voice or facial expression to help interpret where people are coming from.
The advantage of email, though, is that you don’t have to respond to the trigger of your emotions right away —it’s not like you’re on the spot with the person right there in the flesh or on the phone — so you can walk away from an angering post and come back to the interaction after you’ve had time to process your emotions and remind yourself of what it is that you’d like to achieve, what behaviour you’d like to cultivate, what qualities you’d like to exhibit. If you’re interested in true communication (talking with someone and not just at them, actually reaching the other person instead of just winning an argument) you can use that time to figure out what practical tools will help you express yourself skillfully, which is to say effectively, caringly and in a resolution-oriented way.
By being effective I mean that the other person actually understands what you’re trying to say.
Expressing yourself caringly manifests as avoiding a dismissive, scornful, belligerent, condescending, sarcastic, judgemental (beyond merely dissenting), belittling, abusive, insulting, etc, etc, way of interacting, both in terms of how you choose to think and feel about the other person and in how you choose your words and phrases. It means maintaining respect for the other person’s dignity when you address them directly and when you talk about them to others.
A resolution-oriented approach is one in which you focus on the issue instead of berating the person, and comes from a place of reason and maturity from which you’re willing and able to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, refrain from jumping to conclusions or making assumptions about motives and intentions, recognize that different people use words differently, and take ownership for your part in the dynamics.
There are several resources for finding the tools you might need to manifest that kind of skillfulness. One book on relationship and conflict resolution that I’ve found interesting and useful is After The Honeymoon – How Conflict Can Improve Your Relationship, by Daniel B.Wile; John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1988. It’s marketed towards couples, but the principles can be applied in any dynamic between two people.
Another resource is the communication guidelines and tips we have on the executive list of the Ontario Federation of Teaching Parents. We established these guidelines to help everyone interact peacefully and respectfully without squelching their differing perspectives. It’s especially important on that list because it’s where the organization’s decisions are made, and they’re made by consensus, so the differences need to be resolved in a joint solution. But even on a list where it’s not a matter of making joint decisions but of having conversations/ discussions, the amount of diversity in most online communities combines with the communication pitfalls of email to create a need for awareness and the developing of communication skills if people are to get along and make the list experience a good one for everyone.
In the guidelines, we give some suggestions of words and phrases that are helpful in expressing things in a non-adversarial way, and we’ve talked about possibly needing another list of words and phrases to avoid. Sometimes, just phrasing things differently can help you change your outlook itself. For instance, if your first impulse is to say, “You’re wrong,” but you decide to find a less confrontational way of expressing it and end up choosing to say, “My perspective is a little different from yours,” you may well find that the process of figuring out how to communicate your disagreement diplomatically opens up your mind to the realization that it is just a matter of differing perspectives, and not one person being right and the other wrong.
Sometimes it’s not any one particular word or phrase that’s at issue, but the overall pattern of wording expresses an outlook that’s adversarial. It might seem to you, for instance, that you’re expressing yourself in a very civil way if you word your disagreement with phrases like, “You’re entitled to your own opinion but…”, yet the effect could be quite the opposite of what I think of as civil if the message you’re conveying is dismissive of the opinion you say the person is entitled to. That’s why I would suggest not trying for civil per se, but for understanding, which will naturally manifest in a way that is also caring, not merely civil.
As with anything, awareness is the first step. If self-reflection doesn’t come naturally to you, you can try adopting a habit of going through a sort of checklist. One that author Barbara Coloroso promotes is to look at what you’re about to say (what you’ve written) and before you say it (send it), ask yourself these 3 questions: “Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?” I would add a few more lines of enquiry that can serve as preliminaries to the other 3: “What am I really feeling? Where is my emotion coming from? What do I want to accomplish in this exchange? Am I likely to accomplish that if I express myself in this way?”
So the preliminary exploration might look something like this:
- What am I really feeling? what’s behind my anger? is it actually fear or pain? what fear? what pain?
- Where is my emotion coming from? am I stressed from something else in my life and letting it colour my perception of what’s happening in this other situation? am I interpreting this through a filter of insecurity?
- What do I want to accomplish in this exchange? do I just want to give this person a piece of my mind and put them in their place, or do I want us to get along and reach mutual understanding?
Having processed your emotions, you can then move on to examining how you’re trying to express yourself. Assuming what you want to accomplish is true communication, i.e. reaching mutual understanding, the following questions can help you find out whether you’re likely to accomplish that by the way you’re expressing yourself in your first draft:
- Is it true? am I jumping to conclusions? are these the facts or is this just my own perspective, my personal experience, my preference?
- Is it necessary? will expressing this do more harm than good? is it relevant to the situation or is it dredging up the past or unconnected incidents unnecessarily?
- Is it kind? how will this come across? can I find a more diplomatic way of expressing it? are there any words or thoughts that are likely to push buttons, offend, insult, intimidate, alienate? is there any residual judgementalism, sarcasm, contempt, dismissiveness, passive-aggressivity showing through?
For me, one of the most powerful of these tools is this set of questions: “What do I want to accomplish in this exchange? Am I likely to accomplish that if I express myself in this way?” It really helps me get past the initial emotional reaction and back to a responsiveness rooted in what I believe in at the deepest level.