I was reading the results of a Anna Turnage’s research at North Carolina State on email flaming, and wasn’t surprised to see that these statements qualified as flames (changed slightly for the censors):

  • “Here’s the deal with this ^&%$ thing. We want the bottom half to be white instead of gray and reduce the background words some. I will be so glad when this ^%$ is over and done with!”
  • “I don’t care. I just don’t have time for this right now!”
  • “Now how would I know that if nobody tells me??? GEEZ! “
  • “CAN YOU PLEASE GIVE ME THE FINAL ON THIS AND DO YOU KNOW WHO WAS TO SEND THIS OUT????????????????????”
  • “Do these guys actually know what the curriculum is or are they making it up as we go along?”

The great news is that the study recommended email etiquette training for all. Call me. But that isn’t what this blog is about. It’s about why we flame and how to stop.

Okay, the why is pretty easy; we flame because we’re frustrated/intimidated/angry/out-of-control about something and want the recipient to know what a numbskull we think they are. (They flame us for the same reasons.) So we tell them what we think. We act out our hostility with word choices (usually too busy/chicken to actually have a productive conversation). We use sarcasm and offensive language. We’re aggressive and nasty and insulting. And then what? Then we wait for their response, fully expecting that we will have convinced them of their inferiority/stupidity/breach of promise and that they’ll say something like, oh you’re so right, I am a moron for not thinking of that/I really am that part of the anatomy you called me and I’ll work hard to collaborate with you again. Yeah, right.

It’s true that they may make you so angry that you may want to ignore the higher ground. But really, when your true motive for writing is result and not vengeance, flaming won’t work. Unless the recipient has been trained in email etiquette (see above) and is professional enough to want to take the higher ground, a returned hostile message, and a downward spiraling relationship, helping neither party to move even an inch closer to getting what they probably each want in the first place – collaboration – will be the result.

Solution? Take responsibility for the words you choose to use, and the results you get.
Consider this: Every communication has 2 messages: Content and intent.

Content is the message. Find a way to frame content so the focus is forward, and your emotion/rage/out-of-control-ness is eliminated. Rather than saying, “There is no way I can ever work with you again after that outburst,” tell them what has to happen to work together. Maybe you say your truth: “After you seek help for that outburst, and if you’d still like to work together, I’ll be happy to work with you.”

Intent is the feeling. If your motive for writing (at least, originally) is to get someone to do something, you need to help them want to do it, not offend them! To get result, determine what positive emotion you can transfer. How can you help them feel good about you, about the situation, about themselves? Instead of flaming, help them feel special. Yes, it’s counter-intuitive and it takes maturity and a conscious decision to take the high road.

Think about content and intent the next time you send an email. You’ll not only be less likely to flame, you’ll be less likely to inflame. And that’s a really good thing when collaboration is at stake and people have to work together.

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