If you’re like a lot of people, you rely far too heavily on email, even when you’d be better served by talking in real-time. That impulse is understandable. After all, email lets you carefully think through exactly what you want to say, choose the perfect words, and avoid the risk of accidentally saying something you’ll later regret. And it also lets you avoid conversations that might be awkward if they happen face-to-face.
Sometimes email is a perfectly sound tool but, certain topics call for an real-time conversation or at least a phone call.
Obviously, you don’t need to communicate in real-time for everything, but you should be thoughtful about what communication mode you choose. Also keep in mind that email and other written forms of communication are notorious for causing miscommunications about tone and intent.
Don’t use email for any of the following situations:
1. Giving critical feedback, especially serious or nuanced feedback.
2. Talking about complex projects or tasks where you need to hash out what the outcome should look like, explain complicated or nuanced information, or otherwise have a discussion as opposed to simply assigning.
3. Delivering a difficult, sensitive, or sticky message, such as turning someone down for a raise or promotion, discussing concerns about attendance, or ending someone’s pet project.
4. Anything likely to be heated or conflict-filled, or even just where your tone could be misinterpreted.
5. Any topics where part of the value of communicating at all is in the discussion (such as talking about performance concerns) and where a one-way delivery of information will deprive you of that.
Consider this guideline: If you’re dreading the conversation or it feels uncomfortable to you, you shouldn’t be using email. That’s the sign of a conversation that’s sufficiently delicate, emotionally charged, or ripe for misinterpretation that you should have a conversation, not send an email.
… Put it in writing
In the previous section, I did not mean to trivialize email. It’s a tremendously valuable communication tool, that’s why it has been embarrassed so widely. Admittedly, email is good for many routine communications. Here are a couple of instances where email is extremely valuable:
- When you want a written record of what was said, refer to later or provide documentation of what was relayed
- When an issue is so complicated that you want someone to have details in writing, such as a new procedure, database modifications or organizational policy. The more formal the communication is, attach a complete, well written document to the email and request a delivery receipt and an opened receipt.
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