Called To The Mat In A Business Email Exchange: How To Handle It

The week started off well when Pieter opened his inbox on a Monday morning and found an email from his supervisor. “Pieter, I have asked Carlos instead of you to give that presentation to the Board of Directors. I assume you are okay with this.”

Pieter had been working on the presentation in question for weeks. He knew the figures by heart and, moreover, was looking forward to the opportunity to deliver a presentation to the company’s top executives himself. If it went well, it could boost his career. So no, Pieter was not okay with it. He was angry and felt betrayed. But could he express that in a business email? And if he did, would it change anything?

We’ve all been unpleasantly surprised by an email. Such messages are what we call email landmines – the daily mountain of innocent emails can suddenly contain a digital landmine that quickly leads to conflict if you step on it.

How do you deal with an email landmine? How do you assertively stand your ground, and how can you do that in a business email? Is it perhaps better to have a crucial conversation in a different way? And maybe more importantly, what behavior is behind a digital landmine? We’ll discuss this and more in this blog article.

The Behavior Behind Spicy Business Emails

Email landmines often express significant stakes and high emotions. There are several reasons why people send out such business email exchanges. Below are a few that you will probably recognize.

Throwing Over The Fence

Sometimes a colleague sends an email to ask for something or to announce a controversial decision, hoping that nobody will respond. This sometimes happens with the best intentions when it is not exactly clear who is responsible for what, but often it feels like the sender is imposing something on you and does not want to take or will not take responsibility.

Avoiding Confrontation

Someone uses an email exchange to avoid the human side of a conflict. This person prefers contact with a keyboard rather than a colleague. Again, our tasks require so much attention that we sometimes forget that we are dealing with people. But the result is often that the recipient feels ignored or disrespected.

Putting It In Black And White

Email exchanges can also be abused as a manipulative way to document every detail—perhaps to prove later that the sender has complied with the conditions. The danger is that sensitive or confidential information is shared in a situation in which this is inappropriate.

Going On At Length

When a colleague sets out a long list of arguments in minute detail to avoid questions, contradiction, or interruptions. There are various channels and methods to explain your reasoning. But usually, business email does not belong to them. It can be very annoying if you open an email exchange and find a five-page dissertation.

Convenience Serves The Colleague

We also sometimes write a business email because the alternative is to call a meeting, call someone, or simply get up from your chair. We’ve all fallen into this trap at least once. One of the biggest advantages of email is indeed the convenience it provides. But if you are the recipient, such an email can come across as thoughtless, lazy, or self-satisfied.

The Tirade

Sometimes you receive an email in which someone opens the attack with things that would never be said out loud. Such a screen creates distance and can feel very safe for the sender to be brutally honest or to react unnuanced. But as the recipient, you must resist the temptation to throw mud back just as hard and instead invest your energy in other work.

Why Does This Disrupt The Communication Between You And Your Colleague?

It’s never fun, and it will never be when you come across such an email, whether it’s for business or in private. You will be inclined to hit back just as hard or to get defensive. Recognizing it as a disturbance of the dialogue is a first step to dealing with such an email exchange.

In a successful email exchange, there is a dialogue. You exchange information to fill your joint pool of understanding. The more information this pool contains, the better you can make a decision to achieve a good result. Email landmines violate two important principles of constructive dialogue: shared purpose and mutual respect.

The Importance Of A Shared Purpose

A shared purpose is a precondition for a meaningful exchange of ideas. If opinions differ about what you want to achieve, it often leads to conflicts or rivalry. Email landmines are signals of egocentric behavior at the expense of a common purpose. They are disastrous for a healthy dialogue.

Mutual Respect

Showing mutual respect is a prerequisite for continuing the dialogue. There is no room for a constructive conversation in an atmosphere of dislike, contempt, or lack of respect. A feature of email landmines is precisely disrespect to a greater or lesser extent. This stands in the way of an honest exchange.

So How Do You React To Such A Business Email Landmine?

Because a shared goal and mutual respect are missing in an email landmine, you as the recipient may feel attacked, unsafe, or hurt. Fortunately, you can counteract this with certain conversational tactics. Below we share 6 ways you can respond:

Agree On When You Will Talk To Each Other

Do not respond to the content of the email exchange. Instead, ask in your reply when it suits to talk about it over the phone. Send a text message if time is of the essence: “I have read your email, let’s discuss it. Is two o’clock this afternoon a suitable time for you?”

Discuss It In Person

A personal meeting is the best option. Seeing each other’s face during the conversation is much more important than most people realize. It gives you insight into what the other person thinks and feels and understanding of what the other person says. You can also use an app with video calling if you can’t meet in person.

Explain What Your Goal Is

Clear the air by immediately stating that you want a solution that is satisfactory to all parties. This turns a conflict into a dialogue without winners or losers: “I would like to find a solution that we can both be happy with. It seems good to talk about it.”

Show Respect

You have seen signals of a lack of respect. Respond by showing respect: “I take your concerns seriously, and I appreciate your opinion.”

Focus On The Facts

When you discuss the content, avoid judgments and conclusions. Stay as close as possible to the facts, details, and data. Focus on the difference between what you expected and what you observed.

Check Regularly For Understanding And Agreement

At VitalTalent, we call the start of each conversation the hellish half-minute because you only have about thirty seconds to make your case before you ask the other for an opinion. If you keep talking longer, the other person gets the feeling that you are lecturing them. Therefore, always check in with your conversation partner to see if they are still following you or already want to respond.


Training solution

More Impact With Business Email Writing

Email can be an efficient and convenient way to communicate. But when digital communication leads to conflicts and disrupted decision-making, it’s time to come out from behind your screen and start a dialogue. Do you want to learn more useful tips and tactics like these? Our Crucial Conversations – Mastering Dialogue training is available both in class and in-company. Or are you looking for conversation skills to address accountability? Learn more about the communication training Crucial Conversations for Accountability.

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