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How to Write Email That Works for Sane, Online Discussion

Do your emails get you into arguments or misunderstandings? Find out how to write email, especially business email, to keep online communication factual and calm.

By
Stever Robbins,
March 4, 2013
Episode #257

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I’ve been part of online discussions for more years than almost anyone else. Email can be the worst; an innocent comment can easily become name-calling and finger-pointing, without making much useful progress. For almost ten years, my Harvard Business School Working Knowledge article on email overload was the #1 Google hit for the phrase. Sadly, in the last year, everyone’s jumped on the bandwagon, so I no longer top the rankings. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t awesome things you can do to learn how to write email effectively.

One thing I’ve found helpful in learning how to write email without things getting heated is to keep it short! Most people don’t read beyond their preview window, so 20-page well-researched scholarly emails are pointless. No one will read them! I limit my responses to 100–200 words of text at most. That increases my chances of being read. But no matter how long my response, after writing it, but before sending it, I scan it and edit to make it less likely to provoke strong emotions. When I’m done, I have a masterpiece of effective online writing, and off it goes.

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Eliminate Personal Attacks

First, scan for anything that could possibly be construed as a personal attack. Business email should never contain personal attacks. The thing about violence, even verbal violence, is that people don’t tend to respond to it by saying, “Gee, I guess you’re right. Now I want to open-mindedly listen to you.” No, violence escalates. Anything that could be construed as a personal attack, even if you didn’t mean it that way, can trigger a defensive response.

When learning how to write nonviolent email, start by noticing what each sentence deals with. If a sentence mentions the person, rephrase it to concentrate solely on the issue you’re discussing. “Your hiring recommendation proves you’re the office imbecile and deserve to be fired” becomes “I have some concerns about the hiring situation.” You’re removing the personal attack, eliminating your revenge fantasy, and shifting from “your hiring recommendation” to “the hiring situation.” That way, you can frame your message as “let’s us pals fight against this tricky, evil hiring situation,” rather than “let my right idea blast your wrong idea out of existence.”

Don’t be personal. You’ll only invite attacks in return.

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