Stop the Email Thread

by Krishna on April 15, 2007

Sometimes, we can see several emails flying between various people on a particular subject. You can see that there is a problem when the argument gets heated and none of the parties seem to be working towards a consensus or final agreement on the issue.

Why does this happen?

  1. Email is not simultaneous communication: Emails are half-duplex, which means that communication takes place in both directions, but not simultaneously. When one person is composing an email, he/she is simply sending a reply and then waiting for the other person to respond. This doesn’t allow for interruptions or feedback while the information is being transmitted.
  2. Emails are easy, but only if they are short: It is easy to send out an email, but to compose a thoughtful, long email takes time and energy, which most people don’t have the patience for. Speaking is much easier for communicating and responding to more information.
  3. Emails don’t convey tone: People cannot understand the tone of the person sending the email. So there is a great chance of misunderstanding a sender’s intentions unless they have written an introduction about what they intend from the email.

How does one stop this?

  1. Call for a meeting or conference call: Get people talking to each other and it is incredible how quickly misunderstandings vanish and agreements are arrived at. Real-time communication also allows more information to be shared between people, allowing for effective future co-operation.
  2. Have a referee or umpire: At least one person in the discussion should act as a neutral. If someone seems to be misunderstanding or taking the discussion on a different track, this person should step in and set the subject and the tone straight.
  3. Encourage longer emails: This is challenging, especially if some people are used to short replies and also are under time pressure. However, they can be trained to do so by providing them opportunities for documentation efforts. Once people get used to writing long documents, they start writing longer emails.

Here are some best practices to avoid starting a long discussion thread or getting flamed:

  1. Explain your intentions clearly — what you are trying to, what your problem is, and why you propose a particular solution.
  2. Provide as much detail in your original email and break down it into bulleted points so that the other person can reply to each point.
  3. Anticipate answers and ask questions based on those anticipated answers. For example: “Can we do this in .NET? If not, …”
  4. Avoid use of words that denote certainty like “must”, “will”, etc. Instead use words like “may”, “can”, etc.
  5. Focusing on getting the task done instead of projecting yourself or your thoughts.

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