To Send or Not to Send…

Like dynamite, email can tunnel through barriers or blow up in your face

I was speaking with a group of senior executives last week about leadership development when we got on a side track about email communication.

One fellow shared “What’s amazing to me is that I’ll be sitting just down the hall from another executive and we’re emailing each other all day long. How crazy is that?” Everyone laughed.

“Of course, sometimes that’s exactly what we should be doing” I told the surprised group. Then I added “The problem is we often don’t know when NOT to use email.”

Email addiction can be overcome! The most important first step is to understand what you are trying to achieve and then select the kind of communication that will help you best succeed.

Here’s a list of communication methods, from most effective to least:

  • Face-to-face
  • Video conferencing
  • Phone call
  •  Email
  •  Instant message / texting

Why do I say this list is in decreasing effectiveness? The farther down the list you go, the more you have to infer the real meaning because you have less to go on. The words are there throughout, of course, yet the first to go are the visual cues and postures – which most of us use as the most predictable indicator of a person’s true intentions. Then the auditory non-verbal cues go – the vocal tone and inflection that help us understand whether a person is being serious or sarcastic. Finally, we get down to sentence fragments and acronyms where expanded meaning is assigned to just a few letters that require prior knowledge on the part of the reader. KWIMV? (that’s “Know What I Mean, Vern?” – and even when expanded it means little to someone not exposed to Ernest in the mid-1980s) So are we communicating yet?

When to Just Say No

Here are some simple guidelines when NOT to click ‘Send’:

You are making assumptions about how the other person is feeling – you might guess accurately and then again you might come across as telling the other person how to feel.

You wouldn’t feel comfortable with your message taped to every door in your building – between the ease of forwarding (intentionally or unintentionally) and the open nature of most electronic communication, it’s safer to treat email as public and not private.

You are emotional – if you’ve ever read an email, gotten ticked off, and dashed off a reply (to all, of course), and then got the real story later, you probably already know the only emotion an email contains is that which you bring to it.

You start spelling out “if this, then that…” scenarios – whenever I find myself typing lists of options for the other person, I know I need a more interactive communication method and pick up the phone or arrange a meeting.

You need to get agreement on a strategy (versus getting a task accomplished) – if the communication is to try and get others to understand “the big picture” or a high-level outcome the business needs to achieve, then email is one of the worst methods possible. Outcomes require interactive communication with as much information (especially non-verbal) so you can see and hear whether people “get it”.

When Email Can Be a Beautiful Thing

Email is perfect in several different areas:

  • Broadcasting simple information to a group – remember morning announcements in school?
  • Answering questions, fulfilling requests – in other words, quick coordination.
  • Documenting agreements and discussions – having things written down can improve consistency and prevent confusion.


Actions You Can Take Today

  1. The next time your mouse pointer is hovering over the ‘Send’ button, think about the outcome you’re trying to achieve by sending the email. Would it be better to speak with the person or people, perhaps face-to-face? If not, send away!
  2. Pay attention to how often you’re sending email instead of connecting directly with someone. Are you taking the path of least resistance at the expense of the relationship? Next time, try one step higher on the list of communication methods above.

Chris Hutchinson