Think Like an Editor blog by Steve Davis and Emilie Davis, S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University

Angry? Frustrated? Call me or drop by

By · Monday, January 13th, 2014

A few days ago, I was reading a piece by Adam Bryant, who writes the Corner Office feature for The New York Times. Bryant crystallizes six things he says business leaders have emphasized to him over the past few years as crucial to success. (Or, as Bryant says, the things that are integral to nurturing “an effective business culture.”)

The last point in particular resonated with me, and I’ve put it on my New Year’s list — a bit late. This year I had resolved to not have any such list, but Bryant’s Point Six so struck home that I broke my resolution not to have resolutions. And, it’s something anyone can practice in any environment — businesses of all kinds, education, personal life.

It’s the Email Trap. Especially when there is disagreement or confusion, email is the worst way to communicate and is an almost-certain path to more bad feelings, heightened confusion and time wasted.

Nancy Aossey, chief exec of the International Medical Corps, tells Bryant:

“If there’s a conflict and you need to resolve it, you cannot really do it in an email because people don’t know tone. They don’t know expression. Even if they like you and they know you, they might not know if you were irritated or joking in an email. There are things we can say in conversation that you can’t say in email because people don’t know tone and expression.

“People change when they talk in person about a problem, not because they chicken out, but because they have the benefit of seeing the person, seeing their reaction, and getting a sense of the person. But arguing over email is about having the last word. It plays into something very dangerous in human behavior. You want to have the last word, and nothing brings that out more than email because you can sit there and hit ‘send,’ and then it just kind of ratchets up … ”

“Sure,” you might be saying. “Everyone knows that.” Apparently not. And certainly, many don’t practice it. It’s not easy to put into practice because of those very human reactions Aossey mentions. Even if you resolve to avoid the trap, a colleague may not. It’s up to you to break the chain when that annoying email rolls in. Don’t answer until you can do it personally, or by phone if you must. (It’s a good idea to give it a little time, too.)

This year I resolve to do more communicating face to face and with a phone call when issues are complicated or things might be going off the rails. Actually, I think I’m pretty good at this, but could do better. Sometimes I just walk the halls and see who I’ll run into, inspiring 5-minute chats and spur-of-the-moment coffees. This is so easy to do, and so important. And, very efficient.

When email makes a Top Six list of some of the smartest CEOs in the world, it might be worth a consideration.

No one is saying don’t tweet, don’t text and don’t email. Just be smart and subtract perhaps one or two from the 1.5 billion or so emails we send daily.

Steve Davis

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