How to Avoid Miscommunication in Email

The head of nursing was furious.  She had just received an email from one of her physicians that read something like this:

To: Barbara Smith

Fr: Dr. James Northern

Subject: Meeting


Barbara wished that she never received emails like this.  Unfortunately from this doctor in particular, emails in all caps were common.  Exclamation points were the norm.  Dr. Northern was an excellent doctor but when it came to email, he was curt, mean and turned people off.  She wondered if anyone had ever given him feedback but she knew the answer to that question.

And so it goes with email.  Emails like that of Dr. Northern are more common than we'd like to admit.  I can remember one from years ago from a colleague that is now legendary.  He was upset at some pizza boxes being left in his classroom.  I can't blame him.  His email, obviously upset, became the laughing stock of the whole school because he accused everyone and their brother of being "churlish and adolescent" for doing such an awful thing.  His anger was justified.  His email wasn't.  

Email, as a mode of communication, has its limits.  The problem is that we often treat it as the be-all of our interaction with peers.  It's not.

If there's one thing that we're trying to cut back on at work, it would be email.  It's not that email is "bad" (it's actually quite useful) but there are some inherent problems with it as a communication currency:

  1. Most people have poor email habits.  Some check email every two minutes while others twice a month.  I know of no one who has a totally clear inbox at the end of the day.  
  2. Email is meant for either sharing information or for asking short questions.  It is not good for conveying emotion or for communicating deeper concepts.
  3. Poorly written emails can hurt a person's platform or worse yet, his relationships with peers.  The email like that of Dr. Northern didn't take anything away from his ability to conduct surgery.  It did hurt his relationship with Barbara.  

Here are some tips for making sure that email is useful and builds rapport rather than creates division:

  • Keep it brief.
  • Avoid all caps unless you are sharing positive information.
  • Avoid sensitive information.  
  • Avoid confrontation.
  • Re-read your email to ask an important question, "How does this sound to the person on the other end?"  
  • Avoid quick-hitting emails that you just fire off while on the go.
  • Empty your inbox twice a week.
  • Remember Ephesians 4:29 which encourages us to "Speak so as to edify..." In other words, if you have something difficult to say to someone, tell them to their face rather than via email.  

Most of us aren't as bad as Dr. Northern in our emails.  Still, we can aim for a higher standard that builds rapport, communicates valuable information and expands professionalism.