“The good news about modern communications is we do not have to do it face-to-face---we can use email. The bad news is we do not do it face-to-face---we use email. Yes, the good news is that we can, and the bad news is that we do.” Chade-Meng Tan, Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness, (And World Peace)How many times have you sent an email and immediately regretted doing so after pushing the send button? How many times have you sent an email, and the receiver of that email got it all wrong about what you meant to say? The media is replete with stories of politicians, public officials and celebrities who make the news because they sent an insensitive email or distasteful joke. When these things happen, the problem isn't with the email. It does what it's supposed to do. The problem is a lack of mindfulness when reading, composing and sending email.
Author, Chade-Meng Tan, in his book Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness, (And World Peace) offers some great advice to help you avoid the problem of sending an email that later comes back to haunt you. He calls it “Mindful Emailing.” As he points out, “The biggest problem with email is that the emotional context is often miscommunicated, sometimes with disastrous results.” Because of this missing context, the brain of the person receiving the email often fabricates that context, and the result is major miscommunication! It is this reason that being keenly aware during responding to email is so important. To do that, we need to “Practice Mindful Emailing” which includes the following when you have just received an emotionally charged email or you are going to have to send a delicate email:
1. “Begin by taking one conscious breath.” This is key when you receive that particularly explosive email in your inbox, and your first inclination is blast back a response. The key to this step, as Tan makes clear, is to calm your mind. You can practice breathing, walk away from your desk, or go to the restroom, but the important thing to do is create a pause between your emotional reaction and your response. To keep from sending an email that further complicates the situation with miscommunicated thoughts and ideas, stop and take a few breaths before responding. That should give you the room to keep from reacting in a harmful manner.
2. “Mindfully reflect that on the receiving end, where there are one or more human beings. Human beings just like me.” Tan even suggests visualizing the person on the receiving end, if it is a particularly difficult situation. The problem with email and other technological messaging is that many people too easily forget that a living, breathing person will receive that message. You can’t do that with a phone call, because there’s a real-time voice connection to a real person, but if you aren't connecting real time with a person, it’s too easy to forget you are interacting someone. This step makes sure that you remember, with compassion, that a person will be reading your message. That should help you make your message or response more compassionate and understanding.
3. “Write your email.” After completing the first two steps, type out your email message.
4. “Before sending your email, mindfully reflect on the insight that if the emotional context of your message is unclear, the receiver’s brain will just make something up that is likely more negative than you intended.” Here, you can put yourself into the receiver’s shoes. As Tan suggests, pretend you already have a negative emotional bias and read you email message. After doing this, revise your email.
5. If you don’t have to send the email at that moment, save a draft, and do it later. (NOTE: This step I inserted; Tan did not include it in his Mindful emailing.) I personally have always saved a draft of an email that has some emotional charge to it for sending later. If you don’t have to respond immediately, then why respond? Respond when cooler heads prevail.
6. “Take one conscious breath before sending.” As Tan points out, if the situation is really delicate, take three conscious breaths. I would add, take three days if you can and need to. Feel completely free to change your mind about sending it. Being overly cautious and deciding to speak to the individual in person or by phone instead is never a bad idea. When in doubt, avoid sending a message that might miscommunicate your message or who you are.
In an age of instant communication, remembering that you can’t take an email back once you've sent it is important. The Practice of Mindful Emailing will go a long way in preventing an already tense situation from getting nastier. It will also keep you from sending that email you may later regret.