BY JEN OLENICZAK BROWN
Have you heard of the email hydra? A friend of mine coined that phrase a few years ago – it’s the idea that you go through your email box and send off the emails that you need it, responding to everything – and suddenly, you have an exponential number of replies. Some are necessary and others…clarifying emails because of passive communication on your side. Questions you thought you answered and information you thought was clear (it wasn’t).
How do you defeat the email hydra? Understanding that you can’t vanquish all of the heads is step one, and targeting the ones you can is the best place to start. Some emails are always going to come back for the last word or confirmation – others can be cleared up on your end by practicing assertive communication.
First off, assertive communication is best categorized by the phrase “I win; you win.” You’re looking out for the clearest possible outcome that benefits you AND the person you’re talking to. Aside from that phrase, there are several tips to move the needle of online communication towards assertiveness.
Use “I” statements
When you’re sending an email to another person, thinking and writing in “I” statements often removes misunderstandings and confusion. If you mean something and it’s coming from you, present it with an “I.”
Before you send your email, think about what you want and how you feel. When you’re writing your email, keep that and what the other person wants in mind. That’s a key difference between aggressive and assertive communication: aggressive focuses on what you want, assertive focuses on what you both want. Make those “I” statements equitable and state them clearly, in writing.
Ask, don’t order
If what you want needs to be done by the other person, be sure that you’re asking for it versus ordering or assuming. Say you need some information by the end of the day – demanding the information clearly doesn’t work, but neither does assuming that someone else is going to understand your timeline! When you assume someone knows what you’re looking for, you’re taking a passive-aggressive stance, because you’ll inevitably be angry when they don’t meet your expectations.
State action clearly
If you need something, stating it clearly is the assertive path. Just like asking versus ordering or assuming, being clear with your ask at the end of your email will yield the best results. If your action item is buried in your email text, it might be missed or confused. When you end with your ask, it’s the last thing they see. By also setting it up as its own line, you don’t chance it being missed.
Move conflict to real life
Email is no place for conflict. Several strategies are helpful when someone is being manipulative in person: if someone is emotional, you can do something called “fogging.” Fogging is relatively easy – you pull out factual information and restate it back to the emotional person. Another technique, if someone is ignoring you and your questions, is very much like a broken record: you repeat your question or statement without additional information or emotion – just a restate. Nothing more or less.
Neither of these techniques work over email without considerable back and forth.
When things get misunderstood or emotional, it’s best to move the conversation offline: if that’s hopping on the phone or talking in person or on video, you need to relocate. Emotions over email are hard to navigate, and the moment they run high, misunderstandings happen. Take a breath, move the conversation, and save yourself the headache.