How to Deliver Constructive Feedback Via Email

| By Terence Brake

Email is not recommended for sensitive communications, but as our workplaces become increasingly virtual we often have little choice

Joseph Grenny shared some useful insights in the Harvard Business Review on using email, although he does recommend limiting its use for difficult conversations.

One of the challenges presented by using email results from the fact that we tend to trust visual data (high bandwidth) more than we do verbal (lower bandwidth). Reading nuances in facial expressions is crucially important in accurately understanding the intentions of others; when the visual data is missing we make up the others’ intentions which can result in great misunderstanding and confusion. When someone writes, “Your report was pretty good” do we see a face with a deep frown or a smile. Grenny has four rules to guide you:

  1. Match your history to the bandwidth: If you have enough of a relationship history with the other person, you can most likely predict how they will react and an email might be perfectly acceptable. With no or little history, more bandwidth would be better, so either meet in person or videoconference/Skype to increase visual data.
  2. State your intent before content: You can sidestep many defensive reactions by clearly stating your good intentions.  You could also communicate your fears about how your intentions might be misunderstood.
  3. Write your email twice: Write it once for ensuring that your message will be communicated honestly.  Then look at your message with the other person in mind.  Imagine his or her face to help humanize them, and try to feel how each point in your message could be misread, i.e. re-write with safety in mind.  
  4. If you feel triggered (or they seem triggered), bump up the bandwidth: As soon as you sense emotion in their response, or in how you feel yourself, shift to another medium.  A phone call, Skype, or a video conference enables more information to be exchanged.

Email itself is neither good nor bad. As we become more digitally fluent, we learn how to make it work for us rather than against us. 

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