“The First Rule of Holes: When you’re in one, quit digging.” Molly Ivins
It seems in the last month or so, I’ve been involved as an observer in probably half-a-dozen conflicts where at least one of the parties involved (usually both) simply didn’t know when to stop. What made it worse in every case was that the conflict was discussed, and inflamed, through the use of e-mail. If you have ever been one of the people who are cc’d into the discussion, or provided the entire e-mail stream later, it always reads like a slow-motion train wreck. One person expresses their outrage and then the other person responds and as each layer of response is added, more and more miscommunication occurs. Then one of the onlookers, in an attempt to settle everybody down, tries to say something helpful which is generally taken by one side or the other (or both) as another attack and the battle wages. By the fourth or fifth email volley, everybody in the conversation has reduced themselves to third-graders on the playground and are now essentially fighting over who gets the last word. The hole just keeps getting deeper and deeper.
I realize in myself the tendency to get into a verbal smackdown every once in a while and it can be truly satisfying to hit the “send” button after clearly putting the person or persons in their place. There’s a certain “So there” that happens when you unload everything into a nine-paragraph email message that clearly shows not only that you are right, but that they are clearly wrong and somewhat idiotic to hold the perspective that the hold. At the same time, I can’t actually recall a time where this was actually an effective strategy and usually, at some point, the email exchange becomes the focus of a person-to-person conversation that stands a much better chance of clearing the air.
Email is great for sharing ideas and information, but it is horrible at dealing with the nuances of emotion. As soon as disagreement about ideas becomes conflict, email becomes a slippery slope. Email is terribly efficient…it creates a linear environment where you have to take everything I say before you can respond and then you have complete freedom to say everything on your mind when you respond back. Face-to-face conflict, on the other hand, is messy. We interrupt each other. We read each other’s body language as we are talking and listening. We can at least see when we are misunderstood. That doesn’t mean we can always resolve things, but it certainly gives us more of an opportunity to do so.
The next time you are in this situation, remember that the easiest time to climb out of the hole you are digging is before it gets too deep. A telephone conversation is better than an email conversation and a person-to-person discussion is best of all. However you want to address it, somebody has to stop digging eventually or the hole can become so deep there is no getting out.