The Old-School Version of Tweeting
In 1979, my fourth grade class was rocked by a major note-passing scandal.
Back then, we wrote notes with the same frequency and flair that girls now text, tweet, Instagram, and SnapChat. The delivery system could be a problem, however, as notes could be intercepted by observant nuns.
Sister Paula had eyes in the back of her habit. One day, she caught some girls passing mean notes about other classmates and informed all the parents at a school meeting.
Mom may not have known about the Internet back then, but she certainly knew about a huge Digital Age’s problem: sending without thinking.
She sat me down and said:
Never write anything you wouldn’t want to see again.
Written words are permanent in a way that spoken ones aren’t. If you wouldn’t feel good about it later, don’t write it.”
Unlike what I did with most of her wise advice, I listened – and committed it to memory.
It’s become my mindful emailing mantra.
Caught in the Moment
A few weeks ago, I banged out an extremely terse email to a colleague after she caused a firestorm on our team, hurting the feelings of a highly respected, hard-working friend and colleague.
I was tired, angry, and annoyed.
Jane’s behavior was neither professional nor productive, and it was costing us precious time and energy.
As I was about to click send, I paused, remembering my mom’s advice.
Step Away from the Keyboard
I put my hands in my lap and took a few deep breaths. I could see in my body just how tense I was – my left shoulder was so wound up it hit my earlobe.
If I sent that email, I’d perpetuate the kind of behavior that had me so hot in the first place. Even worse, I’d be helping that negativity ripple out far past the two of us as the situation worsened. Just as emails can go viral, so can emotions. That’s the last thing our team needed.
I got centered, trying (not entirely successfully) to relax. I thought of Jane’s situation – job transition, huge uncertainty, tight timelines – and likely a whole slew of other things I knew nothing about.
Then I thought about why she’d say what she’d said. While it was possible she did it to be mean, it was unlikely. Maybe she’d misunderstood. Maybe she was taking out her anger and frustration from other things. Or maybe she was just trying to get attention.
I have no idea what she was really thinking or feeling. Honestly, it didn’t really matter.
What did matter was that in less than a minute, I’d calmed down a bit and saw the situation much differently.
Send to Sender
I sent the email – but not to Jane. I sent it to myself.
When the message appeared in my inbox, I tried my best to read it as Jane would.
It was harsh.
I sounded like a major bitch. Of the Ice Queen variety.
If I were Jane, receiving this would make me feel offended, angry, and even further disregarded and misunderstood.
Most of all, to my mom’s point, I certainly didn’t feel good about sending something like that.
My self-righteous anger quickly dissolved into shame.
I’d never want to receive this email, no matter what I may or may not have done to provoke it.
I hit delete.
We all know the potential perils of email.
Our little fingers go rogue, hijacked by emotion that feels deliciously justified in the moment but that often morphs into something more like regret, within seconds – especially if our heated mistakes get shared with the world.
We forget the recipient is actually human, just like we are.
We lack the critical nonverbal communication cues like facial expression, tone of voice, and body language. (Emoticons are a pathetic substitute.)
We read between the lines.
It’s a minefield – and what’s the best way to cross a minefield?
Don’t do it at all, if there’s any possible way to avoid it.
Sometimes emails don’t require and/or merit a response. Delete it – or toss it in a folder if you think you’ll need it later. Then do your work to let it go.
If you do need to cross the minefield, it’s best done veeeery caaaarefuuuullly.
To make it to the other side of a dispute without blowing everyone to smithereens, mindful emailing is, by far, the most effective way to navigate.
Mindful Emailing Starts with Presence and Awareness
Get present by taking several deep, slow breaths.
Identify what you’re feeling and where it most affects your body. Are your stomach, jaw or shoulders tense? Blood pressure elevated? Fists balled up like a prize fighter?
Acknowledge all of this without feeding into it – and step away from the keyboard. The situation is what it is – and how you feel about it will change with time, like everything else. Wait until you’ve calmed down, even if it takes a day or two.
When you’re ready to write, spend a moment thinking about how you’d like this email to be received.
What do you want the outcome to be?
What do you want the recipient to think of you when he or she reads it?
Your answer will likely be much different later than in the heat of the moment, so sit with it awhile.
Write From a Mindful Place
If you believe that an email response (as opposed to no response or direct conversation) is necessary, once you’re calm and clear, write the email.
Own your point of view by maintaining an “I” perspective (as in “I felt angry” vs. “You screwed up”).
Send the email to yourself. This is key to mindful emailing. In addition to catching missed typos, it’s much easier to take the recipient’s perspective when you literally receive the email in your inbox.
Read the email at least twice – from the recipient’s point of view. Connect their potential feelings, reactions, and responses.
Edit liberally. Make it clear and concise. Rephrase or delete anything that sounds like an attack, is off your main point, contains poor grammar, or could be misconstrued. While this doesn’t guarantee it’ll be interpreted as you intend, it helps a lot.
Send the email with clear intentions that it be well received and help to improve the situation and relationship.
Choose Your Words Carefully
Today, many of us write much more than we ever used to, perhaps more than we talk. (I don’t – I talk a lot.)
We are responsible for every single one of our words – even if we can’t control whether they’re shared, saved, or twisted.
If you want your words to speak well of you as a person, practice mindful emailing: hit the pause button before the send one.
My mom would like that.