By Michael Gunther

I suggest you stop using email. Well, not entirely—I mean stop using emails to share bad news, problems or to address a conflict or performance issue. Time and time again I hear stories of emails being misinterpreted and emotions on the receiving end rising higher than the sender expected. Email does have its purpose in building and managing relationships, sharing information and enhancing communication. But it has limitations, and can be very damaging when communicating issues that truly should be handled through a telephone conversation or a face-to-face meeting.

Business is about relationships—establishing new ones and maintaining and growing existing ones. When you think of effective communication, there are three elements: words, tone of voice and nonverbal behavior (e.g. facial expressions or body language). Tone and nonverbal are the most impactful, with over 90% of effective communication attributed to these two factors, according to Albert Mehrabian study at UCLA. They call it the 7%-38%-55% rule: 7% of effective communication is based on words, 38% is based on tone and 55% is based on non-verbal cues. Studies that followed Mehrabian’s suggested even higher relationships between effective communication and non-verbal cues.

So, when you consider email communication—which is made up of just words—you can see how easily emotion and tone can be miscommunicated and misinterpreted. Personally, I know I’ve received emails and thought the sender was really angry because some words were in all capital letters (which in email suggests yelling). Once I spoke directly to them, they explained it was just to emphasize certain aspects of the content. Recently, one of my brothers sent an email to our family that caused some feathers to be ruffled, which was not his intent, but probably could have been handled more effectively with a few telephone calls (although in my family it would be many, many calls based on our size). This common miscommunication happens in so many aspects of our lives.

This brings to mind a past client who shared an email with me from a perspective distributor of their product. My client was really upset because in the email the distributor talked about their competition, and my client was ready to reply with an email blasting him for the possibility of going with the competitor instead. He was highly charged with emotion. When I read the email, I didn’t interpret it the same. I suggested he call the potential distributor and have a conversation about the intent of the email. My client ended up having a great conversation, and realized he had attached the wrong meaning to the words of the email. If he would have responded to the email with his initial reaction, it could have caused a problem that didn’t exist and damaged their relationship.

This also reminds me of another example of a client who reprimanded an employee via email. He actually referenced the corrective action that needed to happen with the employee’s performance and threatened him with the loss of his job. Needless to say, this did not go over very well. The employee forwarded the email to numerous others within the organization, and immediately there were multiple people upset and involved in an issue that shouldn’t have gone beyond a private conversation between a manager and an employee.

Beyond emotional miscommunication, I’ve seen mistakes when sales representatives send proposals to potential clients via email and don’t include any telephone conversation about the proposal. The opportunity with the client is lost because the sales representative doesn’t experience the initial reaction to the proposal—the verbal or non-verbal cues, basic positivity or negativity. They can no longer respond to the reactions and reassure where hesitations exist, or explain where questions arise, to build a stronger relationship.

The Bottom Line

Email is an effective tool in many respects, but don’t forget to assess whether the message or content that you want to deliver is appropriate to be communicated in the electronic format. Many people hide behind email as an easy way to discuss issues that they know may be contentious or create a conflict. Use your judgment before you hit ‘send’—it might be that a telephone call or a face-to-face meeting is more suitable in maintaining both an effective communication stream and a strong relationship.

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