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Stop E-Mail Drone Strikes

In the course of working with people in conflict, I am often asked to advise on how to respond to zinger e-mails—electronic nasty-grams that contain words, phrases, or demands that would almost never be expressed orally.

My most common response to a “How should I respond to this e-mail?” question is to suggest a nonelectronic response. “Don’t be tempted to craft a retort,” I say. “Go talk to the person. This will probably make them very nervous, and that might be a good thing.”

In a conflict-averse, or at least conflict-uncomfortable, culture, face-to-face or even phone conversations can produce anxiety. Introverts with strong writing skills often find e-mail to be a perfect medium, as it permits them to dazzle recipients with artful word strings from a distance. Better to type, type, type, and push Send than deal with the messiness of emotion that can occur in a back-and-forth conversation.

In his recent “Office Politics Ninja” podcast, Brandon Moser calls those electronic assaults “e-mail drone strikes.” He notes that drones are emerging as preferred vehicles for warfare because they permit attacks on targets from afar, thereby protecting the assailant from injury. Bomb. Strike. KAPOW! No muss and no fuss. It works in the military, so it can work in professional settings, right? Not if you change the rules of warfare.

You can put a stop to e-mail drone strikes or at least reduce their frequency by making it dangerous to engage in that kind of warfare. It’s simple, really. Stop using e-mail to respond to e-mail. Pick up the phone. Drop by an office. Suggest a discussion over coffee. Send a message that you believe e-mail is for responding to routine inquiries, not for managing expressions of emotion. “You seem upset, let’s schedule some time to talk.” Or, better yet: “Oh, good. You’re here. I was surprised by your tone, so I thought I’d drop by to see you.”

Responding to e-mail drone strikes in person rather than electronically signals that lobbing e-mail bombs will have consequences, and forces your “opponent” to see you as a human being with actual feelings. That approach can also change the power dynamics and give you the upper hand. Better to be perceived as fearless than a chicken who uses a keyboard for protection.

Have you ever been a casualty of an e-mail drone strike? If so, how did you respond? Did your approach work?

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user World Can't Wait.]

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