Do you know how you sound in emails?
Without the benefit of being able to hear people’s vocal inflections or see their faces, it can be challenging to interpret how the person on the other end of an email is feeling. Emoticons and exclamation points can only take you so far (especially in a business email), and in fact, sometimes formal business language can start to sound, well, negative without context.
A Wall Street Journal article on enigmatic email tells the story of a consultant who sent a detailed project plan to her client by email and received only a one-word response: “Noted.”
She feared he was angry or disappointed, when in fact, he was thrilled to be able to clear the issue from his inbox with so little effort.
So how can you ensure you get your message across without seeming negative?
Accentuate the positive.
Overall, the word choices you make add up to the tone of your communications. And when you consistently choose negative words and phrases, your emails will sound terse, condescending, or angry.
Negativity is never good and always sends out negative vibes. Even if you feel negative about a situation, you can still make an effort to turn your emails into more positive messages — which usually get better responses.
Words like cannot, damage, do not, error, fail, impossible, little value, loss, mistake, not, problem, refuse, stop, unable to, unfortunately, escalation, urgent, never, inability and unsound all have a strong negative connotation.
Take this sentence for example:
Unfortunately, it will be impossible to finish the project on time because of the problems some people are causing.
That’s a lot of negative words for one sentence. But you could easily convey the same information in a more positive way, like this:
Everyone must turn in their portion of the project by Thursday so that we can complete the work on time.
As you can see, it’s all about the words you choose that conveys your tone. If the boss in the Wall Street Journal example above had even responded with, “Thank you!” instead of “Noted,” his employee probably would not have worried whether she had done a good job.
Try to phrase your message using more positive terms like benefit, it is best to, issue, matter, progress, success and valuable.
Dos and Don’ts
An easy way to fall into the negativity trap is to start listing out things people shouldn’t do. Don’t leave uneaten food in the office refrigerator. Don’t be late to the meeting. Even saying “don’t forget” is more negative than saying “remember.”
Instead of telling others what not to do, try telling them what they should do instead. Please take your lunches home at the end of the day. Please arrive for the meeting five minutes early.
People are much more likely to comply with a positive request than a negative complaint on their behavior.
When in doubt, spell it out.
If you find that people frequently misinterpret your emails, you might need to be more explicit. There’s no harm in actually saying how you feel when communicating with colleagues, especially those with whom you have a good relationship.
For example, rather than using terse, negative language in an email about project scheduling because you’re sick of the software you have to use to schedule meetings, you might come out and say, “This scheduling system is frustrating to me, but it looks like we can meet on Friday…”
That way, the recipient can understand that you’re feeling negative about something other than him.
Have you ever had a major email miscommunication? Was tone to blame? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments below.
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