Some tips and pointers about e-mails, not only in the office, of course. This is applicable to anything about e-mails, office, home, or just anywhere else where e-mails are used as a means of communication.


I HAD never thought of an email as a weapon of mass destruction. Not, that is, until I received a couple from different sources, both of which had me smoking from the ears.

They were abrupt, rude, insensitive and totally lacking in emotional intelligence. I used two words that rarely pass my lips to describe them. The second of the two was "off". Fortunately, I kept them to myself.

When my temperature returned to normal, I revisited the emails and examined them carefully. Both contained important information as well as the irritating prods at my integrity and ego. But I had to read them twice to get at the valuable facts because I first had to sweep away the emotional needling and control my instinctive violent reactions.

On examination, the writers had good points to make. Even the poorly expressed feelings were valid. In a calmer mood, I addressed them and took the heat out of the battle.

Not everyone is patient, and I see a lot of poor communication at the root of many of my mentees' problems. Inevitably, today, much of that communication is by email. So, why has the problem come about and what should our standards be?

The cause is always thoughtlessness. We write as we feel, to purge ourselves of the anger inside us. We should write so that the recipient reads, understands and reacts reasonably to our point of view.

We say what we want to say; we should say what we want the other person to hear and act upon in such a way that it will enhance our communication, not chop it off.

What I am saying applies to all communication, of course. Emails pose a particular problem. Their virtue is that they are fast. No envelope addressing and sealing, no stamp licking, no pause between writing and popping into the mail box.

The email's vice is that it is too fast. It has none of the previous pauses that allowed us to think twice about what we are sending.

To ensure that our email communication is effective in the way we intend, I suggest four thoughts about how we might compose these dangerous little bullets.

1 Before writing the email, make a note of (a) what you want the other parties to do as a result of your email and (b) what words you think are most likely to encourage them to do it. Those words will include acknowledgement, praise, kindly disposition as well as requests or orders. They will not include threats, real or implied, nor will they use emotive adjectives or challenging nouns. In particular, the word "trust" will be avoided; it is a double-edged sword.

2 We do not want to waste time — ours or theirs — but good communication is achieved when the pace at which we write is the pace at which the reader is likely to absorb and understand what we are saying. Emails that appear abrupt to the other person have failed even if they have said all you want to say.

3 The words we use to make our points should be as conciliatory and soothing as the message and context allow. Let the sun generate the heat; we should aim to soothe by cooling.

4 Greeting and closing. In a world of fast messages, we have lost the art of greeting. Nevertheless, when we are sending controversial or tricky messages, how you start and finish matter. The abrasiveness of the message can be much reduced by keeping the formalities civil. If we want to avoid our emails triggering the worst reactions, let them be at least polite.

John Bittleston mentors people in business, career and their personal lives at

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From TODAY, Business – Monday, 01-Jun-2009

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