You’ve carefully crafted an email – re-reading it, re-writing it and even asking for someone else to review it before sending – but the recipient still misunderstood your meaning. This happens to all of us.
Many professionals ask, “Is there a way to craft my emails so that they are less misinterpreted?”
My suggestion is don’t use email for important communication that may be misinterpreted. Email is a fantastic tool, but it’s best for dry, factual information, or very short, quick messages. It really isn’t good for important conversations, because we need the emotional subtext in those conversations in order to assess how we are doing with this person. What is our relationship like? What is the level of trust?
The Science Behind Communication
Here’s what we know from science. We now know our brain is constantly scanning the environment for signs of danger and threats. But what we also now know is that our brain perceives physical threats in the same way that it perceives social threats. Your brain doesn't see the difference between someone pointing a gun at you and someone potentially cutting you out from an important project at work. Your brain thinks of those things as equally dangerous, and it goes into a threat reaction mode with either one of those.
So how do our brains assess a conversation? We’re looking for all of the information that comes in through all five senses. We’re listening for the words that the person chooses when they’re talking to us, but we’re also listening for all of the nonverbal components of the message, such as the tone of voice, volume, and pitch.
We’re also looking at their facial expressions as they’re giving us that message. Are they making eye contact, or are they averting their eyes? Are their brows furrowed? Are they smiling? Are they frowning? What is their situation in terms of their shoulders, their physical body, their arm motions, and their proximity to us? All of those things are important components of the message and our brains know to read them.
Multiple studies have also shown that when our brains perceive a mismatch between what the words are saying and how they’re being said, our brains trust the nonverbal message more than the words.
So for example, if someone said, “I’m not angry,” those words are meaningful. But if the person said, “I’m not angry!” [shouting, arms crossed] then the rest of the message is actually saying, “Whoa, this person is ticked off!” And your brain is going to read that and say, “You know what? Those words don’t mean anything to me. I don’t believe you. I think you’re mad.”
Why You Shouldn’t Use Email For Important Conversations
So what happens in email? We don’t have any of that context. We don’t have any of the nonverbal, emotional components of the message to read. But your very helpful brain wants to get that information so guess what it does? It makes it up! We actually start to fill in the missing components to that message with made-up stuff that we conjure up based on our mood at the moment, our past experiences with this person, what we’ve experienced with a similar person who has said something like this, and a whole host of other things.
In conclusion, email really backfires when there is some kind of an emotional relationship component to the message. Without context in the communication, our brains make it up.
You can avoid miscommunication by simply conducting important conversations in person, or at minimum, over the telephone so the vocal components of the message are present.
More From Halelly Azulay
Halelly Azulay is a facilitator, speaker, and leadership development strategist and an expert in communication skills and emotional intelligence. She is the CEO of TalentGrow LLC, where she develops leaders and teams, especially for enterprises experiencing explosive growth or expansion. Her free leadership and communication skills podcast, blog, and videos can be found at talentgrow.com.