THE BLOG
10/04/2012 12:40 pm ET Updated Dec 04, 2012

Three Tips for Managing Conflict via Email -- Before You Even Begin to Manage the Conflict Itself

A small business partnership becomes so toxic that one partner blames the other for stress and emotional problems. A relationship between start-up owners sours enough that one suggests halting communication. A friendship deteriorates so rapidly that the entire 20-year relationship is in jeopardy. What do all three scenarios have in common? They all play out over email.

As a globalized workforce increasingly turns to email to manage inevitable conflict, the impact of how we communicate by email is greater than ever. Ineffective email communication exacerbates conflict and undermines relationships; effective email communication helps you achieve your substantive goals AND preserves relationships. This first of two articles offers three tips for managing conflict--before you even begin to manage the conflict itself.

  1. Decide whether email is the best mechanism for resolving your issue: Email facilitates the quick exchange of information and provides a useful record of an ongoing conversation. And it enables colleagues separated by thousands of miles and different time zones to communicate on their own schedule. On the other hand, email is an imperfect communication mechanism -- the absence of familiar non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and gestures increases the likelihood of miscommunication. The inability to engage in real-time, back-and-forth dialogue makes it difficult to jointly solve a problem. Email gets us into trouble when we rely on it to conduct difficult conversations. For example, using email to inform the monogrammer you have worked with for eight years that its competitors are "asking for your business" may sour the relationship, rather than help you address the root causes of the problems that have led you to consider working with other vendors. As a general rule, use email to deal with conflict only if it is impractical to meet in person or talk via phone or Skype.
  1. Take a step back and avoid reacting. Determine your goal and strategy: Our natural tendency to respond quickly to an infuriating email increases the likelihood that we'll write something we'll soon regret. Instead, take a step back and avoid reacting. Wait until your blood level has returned to homeostasis before crafting a response. Then analyze what's going on. What is driving you -- and them? And most importantly, what are you trying to achieve? Defining a clear goal for yourself makes it more likely you'll achieve it. Develop an email strategy designed to achieve your goal. For example, if your goal is to rebuild trust following a botched deal, you might consider expressing regret or acknowledging the negative impact it has had on them. Consider asking a colleague you respect to review the email before you send it to ensure it is likely to meet your intended purpose.
  1. Attend to the relationship and avoid unnecessary escalation: A satisfactory resolution to your conflict typically requires dealing effectively with both the substance of what you're negotiating and the relationship between you and the other parties. "Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In" advises us to separate the people from the problem - be "soft on the people and hard on the problem." Find something positive to say at the outset--that it was nice to connect with them recently, that you appreciate the time they've invested in the conversation, or that you want to maintain the relationship you have built.

Preserving the relationship also means refraining from CC'ing others not involved in the matter. Copying colleagues you believe will side with you in your dispute typically engenders resentment, damaging the relationship and making agreement more difficult. Bring others into the conversation only if you and your counterpart agree that doing so may help you resolve the issue--by soliciting new ideas, identifying criteria for making a decision, or agreeing in advance to whatever decision is made by the third party.

The follow-up article will feature four tips for helping you achieve your substantive goals via email in a way that preserves relationships. For more on these ideas, consult "Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement without Giving In," "Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most," and the consulting firm Vantage Partners (www.vantagepartners.com).