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Ombud’s Corner: that’s not what I meant…

Have you ever been surprised by a negative reaction to an e-mail communication that you believed to have been efficient, helpful and to-the-point?


So you dashed off a reply to that query with a short and factually informative e-mail, stressing the key points and keeping the niceties to a minimum, convinced that your interlocutor would appreciate the efficiency and speed with which you reacted… and you were genuinely surprised when you realised from their response that something had clearly gone awry.

These misunderstandings do happen because there can be a gap between what is said by one and what is understood by others. This gap widens in written communication, where the words are not attenuated by non-verbal aspects such as tone or gesture. If your well-intentioned and factual message or response to a query has been perceived as excessively curt or even disrespectful, you can still do something to fix the problem.

Start by following up on the exchange and acknowledging the gap between your intentions and the way it was received, as this will demonstrate your willingness to repair any inadvertently negative impact. The next step is to seek feedback in order to understand the other person’s objections and share your own point of view in order to clear the misunderstanding and move forward together.

Taking this kind of action to follow up on reactions usually has a positive impact on others, and, by making it a learning conversation where you take the time to listen and acknowledge their perspectives, you may gain an insight into your own communication style, which will help you not only to remedy the situation at hand but also more generally in your everyday interactions. The key lies in keeping an open mind and overcoming any natural feelings of defensiveness by focusing on your genuine wish to be respectful and to maintain a good working relationship.

Communication, however, is a two-way process and responsibility for such a misunderstanding does not lie only with the sender of the message – but also with those on the receiving end whose negative reactions may have been influenced by their own personal history or circumstances.

So if you are on the other end of this exchange and you find yourself tempted to challenge the tone or wording of an e-mail you have just received, you should stop to reconsider the sender’s intentions before shooting off an aggressive e-mail in response. Perhaps they have always been encouraged to keep e-mails as brief and specific as possible? Do they operate in a culture where this communication style is the norm? Are they even aware of the risk that they may be perceived negatively? At the same time, it may be useful to reflect on your own intentions – by responding abrasively would you not be stooping to a counter-attack, which simply sets off an e-mail exchange that will ultimately be disrespectful and counter-productive?

Regardless of on which side of such an e-mail exchange you may find yourself, it is always going to be in your interest to build the relationship, rather than to damage it! A well-intentioned conversation to share perspectives and address the situation is the best way forward… and, if possible, as you will undoubtedly agree, a face-to-face discussion to clear the air is always going to be more effective than e-mail!

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