Stopping the Stress of Email Conflict

Email conflict is never productive, so what can you do to manage it or prevent it in the first place?

By Neil Stoneham, Director, Voxtree


We’ve all been there. First your heart sinks, then you go cold, then the anger rises up inside. Yes, you’ve just received that email that makes you furious.


Your immediate response is to start tapping away frantically, letting off steam so that the sender can be in no doubt you’re not happy.


But wait! This is probably the worst thing you can do.


What if the sender didn’t mean to offend? What if there has been a simple cultural misunderstanding? Perhaps it was your original email to the sender that made them furious.


There could be all sorts of innocent explanations.


The fact is that people waste too much time and energy because of badly-written emails. In business, this costs money – sometimes a lot of it.


So how can you avoid conflict in the first place, or resolve things amicably if you’re already involved?


The following three points should help:


1)    Consider whether email is the right platform to air your grievances. Getting the tone right using the written word is not easy, which is even more of a problem when difficult issues are being discussed. This is mainly due to the lack of emotional signifiers in email. We might use emoticons to help, but that’s often not appropriate for business communication.

Maybe the issue is best dealt with by a phone call, conference call or face-to-face meeting. People are usually much less confrontational when facing someone else directly. Two-way conversations are also a much quicker way to resolve conflicts.


2)    Before you write your email, take time to plan what you want to say. Emails written in the heat of the moment rarely end up happily, and often serve to worsen the conflict. Sometimes you will need to be polite but firm, so being clear and unambiguous will make a positive difference.

The best advice is to draft your response, but leave it overnight before sending it. With a bit of distance, you’ll approach the conflict more calmly and get better results.


3)    Use non-aggressive language and sentence structure to make your point. Lots of short sentences can signal anger and arrogance. WORDS IN CAPITALS ARE THE LINGUISTIC EQUIVALENT OF SHOUTING IN SOMEONE’S FACE, as are exclamation marks (especially in quick succession!!!)


Writers often use a technique called hedging to soften their writing. This works incredibly well in difficult discussions, as does the word ‘sorry’ or ‘apologise’. Many conflicts persist because both parties are reluctant to say it.


If in doubt, stick to the three P’s: Keep it Professional, Polite and Positive.


Avoid cc’ing others into the email, just because you think they will take your side. It only irritates the receiver and complicates the conflict even further.


If you must use email to resolve a conflict, then it is always best to focus on how to reach a quick and amicable resolution that suits everyone. End the email with a list of solutions, rather than demands.


Offer that elusive olive branch, and don’t allow your ego to rule out back-tracking a little. A slight ego bruising is better than enduring more sleepless nights and unnecessary stress as your conflict gets out of hand.


Stop an email conflict quickly in its tracks or avoid it all together, and you’ll be a more successful and happier professional. 


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