In face-to-face communication, the underlying tone of the message is understood using a variety of cues including facial expressions, voice, sarcasm, and pauses. Without these, email messages can be misinterpreted at one or both ends of the conversation, particularly if the communicators are in different emotional states or the communication covers a sensitive topic. When communicating online, it is important to make sure your messages are being understood as intended (Evans, 2009).
Overcoming the Loss of Non-Verbal Cues
To overcome the loss of non-verbal cues, incorporate feelings and emotions into your writing. The following list provides some ideas.
- Describe your immediate state of mind prior to writing the main message (descriptive immediacy). This cues the reader into your emotional state (Mullhauser, 2011d).
- I had a crummy morning. I got a flat tire on the way to work and then spilled coffee down my shirt within minutes of finally getting to the office.
- Describe nonverbal reactions within the main message (Collie, Mitchell & Murphy, 2000).
- As I was reading your last message, my shoulders tensed up.
- I have been smiling the last couple of minutes, thinking about how well the job interview went for you.
- Use italics, font size, all caps, bolded text, or underlines to highlight important details of the message (Mullhauser, 2011d).
- I am so HAPPY for you!
- It is disappointing that you did not make it to the last appointment.
- Use emoticons to convey simple emotions (Collie, Mitchell & Murphy, 2000 and Mullhauser, 2011d).
- Wow, what a day you had 🙂
- I am having reservations about this interview 🙁
- Extend the length of words or use “……” to indicate a pause or delay in thinking or writing (see citation 3).
- Ooooooh…..I get it now.
- I used to be so positive about things………now I just get down on myself.
- Describe your emotions in brackets (Collie, Mitchell & Murphy, 2000 and Mullhauser, 2011d). This is called [emotional bracketing] and helps demonstrate empathy.
- I am going over what you described about your family [feeling sad].
- I think you did a great job at the interview, even though things did not go that well for you [feeling proud].
Written Communication Strategies
Written communication can be improved by keeping language simple, avoiding jargon, and making sure abbreviations are mutually understood (Jones & Stokes, 2009). In addition, there are ways of writing that reduce confusion, encourage clarification, and keep people engaged.
Focused and direct communication style (Stofle & Chechele, 2004)
Write short email messages that focus on only one or two specific topics.
Make inferences, rather than statements (Evans, 2009)
Use qualifying words that allow and invite the reader to provide more clarification.
- “I sense that you were frustrated during the meeting.”
Other examples include “it sounds as if,” “I am hearing,” “I have the feeling.”
Quote from the email you are responding to (Mulhauser, 2011d)
When responding to a specific part of a message, it can be clearer if you quote the information before providing a response (Mulhauser, 2011d).
- In your last message you wrote “I am frustrated with my new coworker because he continues to come in and out of my workspace.” Here are some strategies for approaching this issue.
When quoting, include enough of the passage so that the reader understands that you got the whole intent of the passage (Mulhauser, 2011d).
You can also use the consumers own words in text when responding (Stofle & Chechele, 2004).
- It can be difficult when “family puts up barriers, whenever [you] try to make appointments.” Sometimes, people close to you feel threatened by changes to the status quo.
Reflect before moving ahead
Email allows time to mull over and consider what was said (Evans, 2004; Mulhauser, 2011d). If an exchange is emotionally charged, delay your response until you are more calm and reasoned.
Ask questions to make sure of intent before responding definitively (Evans, 2009).
- “When you said you hated your new job, were you referring to the job tasks, interactions with coworkers, your supervisor, or a combination of many factors? Help me understand the situation better.”
Offer tentative interpretations and ask for further clarification (Evans, 2009).
- “It sounded like you were frustrated when your spouse said you shouldn’t go back to work. Am I understanding this correctly?”
Proofread your message
Proofread your message to make sure it is professional and clear. A clear and accurate message demonstrates you value the consumer and took time to do your job well (Jones & Stokes, 2009).
Help the consumer engage in the process
Use the email subject line to alert the consumer to the purpose of the message (see Stofle, & Chechele, 2004).
Provide an update about where you are in the conversation (Stofle & Chechele, 2004).
- For instance, “When you last emailed, you told me that you had made some progress on your resume, but that you were still working on some things. How has that been going?”
Include assignments or specific tasks between emails to keep case progress moving forward (Stofle, & Chechele, 2004).