To paraphrase Madonna: It’s a digital world and I am a [reluctant] digital girl.
We’ve all gotten it: the email that unravels all your awesome (if you do say so yourself) plans. You send a simple request to someone and they email back explaining all the reasons what you need is not possible. Or you get an unsolicited bit of advice or feedback that hits every nerve in your body. Or you send a bit of feedback only to receive an email in return that is laden with hurt feelings and accusations. As our world continues to turn more and more to impersonal, digital communication methods it becomes easier to lose sight of feelings and emotions when we communicate with a quick click, click, click… send.
But human beings haven’t changed. We are still emotional beings who take pride in our work and try (I hope) to do our best to respect the dignity of others in our communications. So this turn to cold, digital communication is sometimes at odds with our communication needs as individuals. Some personality types are better suited to digital communication than others. But on the whole, we lose something when we communicate as though it is entirely mechanical instead of personal.
So, how do we respond in love while still maintaining appropriate boundaries and professionalism?
Here are my quick and dirty email communication rules that I try to follow:
1. Take a breath or, better yet, several. Just because email means instant communication is possible, it doesn’t mean instant communication is necessary. With smart phones, tablets, and wifi galore we’ve become a society that expects instantaneous answers to all of life’s questions. Just because there might be an expectation that we respond immediately it does not mean it is required. Take 24 hours before responding to any email, that is not time sensitive, that is upsetting or inflammatory. If you think that window might further damage the relationship, a simple response that tells the sender you received her/his correspondence and will respond soon can sometimes defuse the situation temporarily.
2. Take it off line. Email is best employed for matter-of-fact, short communications. Once hurt feelings get involved the situation can escalate quickly. Offer to meet in person or by telephone if the correspondence has taken a turn towards hurt feelings.
3. Walk a mile. If you thought the thing you were requesting was simple yet the response you got was complicated, rather than further explaining why your request is really simple – look at it from their perspective. What are the values involved? What other factors are in play?
4. Get an outside perspective. If you really cannot settle down or see the reasoning in the correspondence, ask an unbiased person to weigh in. Sometimes this might be to validate what you are experiencing, a lot of the time this might be to objectively consider both sides.
5. Remember the Christ that is in them. It is really easy to play the “I’m right, they’re wrong” game with email. You don’t have to look the other person in the eye when you are communicating and “hearing” their words. I find it is always best for me to assume the best motives and remember that at the bottom of it all the person with whom I am communicating was created in God’s image. This is both the hardest and easiest step. If loving everybody was easy, we’d live in a much more peaceful world.
It’s only after I’ve completed the above five steps that I am able to respond to difficult emails with love. Sometimes I do respond before I’ve participated in these steps and sometimes I luck out and do a good job. Most of the time, though, a quick response leads to hurt feelings and a much longer and more arduous communication than was necessary.