This past week I met with the project team to discuss an upcoming meeting. I offered to relay their concerns to the individual I was meeting with later. Some of my team members asked why I thought an in-person meeting would be more productive than sending an email from the group.
I told them email is good for certain moments but that tone cannot be easily inferred in written communication. I explained that with sensitive topics, communicating intent with tone, body language and real-time dialogue makes makes a meaningful difference in arriving at an outcome that both parties can stand behind.
By delivering concerns directly (whether in person or over the phone), there’s a captive audience, the recipient is able to ask questions and get immediate responses. The team agreed that back-and-forth emails with questions often cause frustration for both parties. Being able to have a direct dialog, quickly answer questions and clarify intent is valuable in minimizing the feedback loop.
I am biased towards in-person discussions, but believe that each mode of communication has it’s optimal use. Here are ten guidelines that come to mind when I think about whether an email is the right one:
- When delivering bad news, email is not generally the right method. Use email to schedule a discussion where you can talk about the issues and work toward a solution. Be sure that everyone is mentally present when you meet.
- Sensitive or emotionally volatile topics should be discussed in person to ensure tone can be interpreted successfully. Use a private setting if appropriate.
- When an in-person meeting is not an option, try video conference. If bandwidth is a problem, schedule a phone call.
- Email is very effective to confirm or document information that has already been discussed.
- Status of a healthy project can be communicated via email. Unhealthy projects deserve meetings or calls given the potential for emotion.
- Emails works well to follow up on action items or open questions from an earlier meeting.
- Before a meeting with a large group of people, sending out the agenda/goals to attendees via email can be helpful.
- If an email discussion has gone back and forth more than twice, get on the phone to hammer out the details.
- If you can’t just walk up to someone, online chat is great for quick questions. But, if the conversation goes beyond 5 minutes of continuous chat, hop on the phone.
- Text messages are reserved for urgent needs or quick questions that are time sensitive.
If you have your own rules you like to follow or disagree with statements above, please share your thoughts.
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