In a recent New York Times column, “Turkey Tune-Out Time”, Roger Cohen wrote about the case for “no e-mail Fridays.” His main point involved the overuse of technology to keep us connected to our work, to our peril. One of his comments about e-mail was especially interesting: “it’s a lousy tool for conflict resolution, a multiplier of misunderstandings.”
Few would disagree that e-mail does little to resolve conflict and that it can easily create misunderstandings. But what is it about this common, handy form of communication that leads to these results?
Cohen’s other observations provide some clues: e-mail is reactive and leads to inside-the-box thinking. Also, people”say” things that they would not say to someone’s face. And then, paradoxically, that off-hand comment that you would never deliver orally is captured forever in the receiver’s inbox.
I would add a couple of other thoughts. The statement/reaction dynamic can easily become one of demand/counterdemand. There is little, if any flexibility in such a dialogue. Second, it’s hard to capture the tone of voice and facial expressions (emoticons notwithstanding) that accompany a written statement, making it easy to jump to false — and unnecessarily negative — conclusions. Third, somehow we seem to believe that there is some greater degree of confidentiality in an e-mail message, when, in fact, your message can be instantly forwarded to a large number of people, from close friends to complete strangers, intentionally or inadvertently.
Conflict is a part of life and so is e-mail. But taking a moment to think about why e-mail and conflict are a poor combination can stop us from making a challenging situation even worse.