[This is the second post in the non-linear ‘communication’ series. You can find the first post here]
Today we’ll discuss another important aspect of the ongoing communication with your peers. It’s also one of the main pitfalls I see where a lot of people (and not necessarily product managers) fall into. As the title of this post implies – we’ll be focusing on written communication.
I think it’d be safe to say that written communication is an integral part of almost everyone’s reality – no matter where they live or what they do. In the hi-tech industry it’s a great portion of the day-2-day where you spend time writing emails, Slack messages or whatever medium your company is using.
We already noted in the last post that a great portion of the product manager’s work is about communicating with others. And a great portion of the overall communication is a written one.
When you ask me what was my own personal pitfall when working with others in my past – the answer is an easy one – written communication.
By far. Hands down.
I created fires (which I had to turn off), damaged work relationships and burned bridges by communicating badly over emails and instant messages. Looking back from the beginning of my career and until a few years ago when I finally felt that I got it right – I could have saved myself (and others) a lot of grief and wasted negative energy.
So – I know a thing or two about misusing this medium – so let me share with you my blood-earned wisdom so you won’t have to suffer yourself.
But first things first:
Why is written communication such a potential huge pitfall?
Unlike face-2-face communication, where you can ‘feel’ the person in front of you, the nature of written communication is much ‘colder’.
Many people are becoming ‘brave’ (or stupid, depending on how you look at it) over the written medium and allow themselves to express their thoughts in a much more direct and blunt way than they would dare to if they actually see the person in front of them.
We are big heroes when we are hiding behind our keyboards. Not sure exactly what’s causing this. I suspect it relates to the lack of direct response or expression of emotions from the other side but I’m not sure.
The fact is that many people will express themselves more aggressively over a written communication than a face-2-face one.
The second danger in written communication is that it is very hard to take back. Unlike spoken words – which leave no physical presence (unless recorded) – written communication is usually here to stay. Even if you are using a medium where the text messages expire after a period – it’s very easy to take a screenshot and keep it forever.
It’s therefore much harder to backtrack from things you’ve written or claim the things you’ve said were taken out of context.
Badly written messages can even return to haunt you years later when they fall into the wrong hands.
The last danger of the written word, which relates to the previous bullet – is the fact that it’s very easy to forward or broadcast to others. So – it could be that your damage control is no longer limited to a single person – but rather to a big group of people, or even the whole company. And let’s see how you turn this one off…
How to avoid the dangers of the written communication
I think the most effective approach here is to present to you a list of tips and best practices that I’m applying when I need to communicate with someone over a written medium.
So let’s get to it:
When emotions are involved
If you are experiencing momentarily negative feelings towards the person you need to write to – don’t write to them! Wait for the emotions to go away, or make it a face-2-face meeting instead.
Additionally, if you’ve written an email, read it – and you are not sure it’s ‘safe’ enough to send it – don’t send it! This is your intuition warning you. Listen to it.
What you must not do in any of these cases: Don’t try to rephrase your mail, lower the tone, make it sound less aggressive or whatever. Simply discard it. Why? Because you won’t succeed. Trust me. A ‘F&#$K you email’ will stay a ‘F&#$K you email’ even if you’ve reiterated it several times. After all – you are unhappy – and it will be reflected in the mail, even if it’s just in the sub-text.
I can testify from my personal experience that every time I suspected that sending an email will result in a ‘fire’ and I ignored this warning or tried to fix the email and then send it – it didn’t end well.
Just drop it. Sending this message is not the way to go. Choose another course of action instead…
When a conversation is becoming emotional
It could be that a correspondence started as an informational only, but then one of the participants is starting to get emotional, for whatever reason.
Alternatively, it could be that one of your colleagues is unhappy with something you did and has engaged with an aggressive written correspondence, complaint or whatever.
It doesn’t matter if the conversation started ‘neutral’ and became aggressive or it has been aggressive right from the start – your reaction must be the same – don’t reply!
It’s very likely this email made you angry or even furious – but even if you are 100% right – don’t reply!
First – relax.
Second – make sure that you are indeed relaxed. 🙂
Don’t stress yourself to become relaxed. Take your time. It may take a few hours or even a day – but that’s ok. Negative emotions in the workplace are not welcomed. I am not saying I support it – but it is what it is.
Anyway – once you are relaxed – you must still avoid a written reply. This conversation needs to become verbal and face-2-face. It also needs to be managed properly, but it’s out of scope for this post. I just wanted to make sure that you do not reply over a written medium.
Do’s and don’ts
Don’t try to educate people over email. The QA team didn’t test the feature properly? Take it with the team leader on your weekly call. Don’t send an angry or ‘educational’ email. People will just get defensive and hold negative feelings against you.
Don’t use ‘bcc’ on your emails, unless you explicitly state so in the email (‘moving Jon to bcc to spare their time’). If you ignore this advice you may risk one of the ‘bcc’ participants (intentionally or not) forwarding your email to the other participants who thought they were alone in the conversation. It breaks trust.
Don’t be cynical or use internal jokes to make fun of someone or the working environment (‘so while trying to find milk in the fridge, with no luck as always, I run into Bob….’). You need to assume these messages can be forwarded to the mentioned or responsible person.
Do stay concrete and to the point. Stick to the facts and what the data shows.
Only express emotions in your emails if these emotions are positive (congrats, giving credit, expressing happiness, etc..)
Always assume your messages will be forwarded to potentially anyone. Therefore, only write down stuff that you are fine with being forwarded.
In this short post I was trying to expose you to the dangers of written communication. By no means I was trying to scare you or to make you avoid it completely. You can’t even if you want to. Written communication is still going to be a very important part of your job. Just manage it properly using the advice above, because things can escalate really fast.
That wraps up the post for today.
If you found this post/series useful – let me know in the comments. If you think others can benefit from it – feel free to share it with them.
Thank you, and until next time 🙂