De-escalating Message Conflicts in the Workplace

Most conflicts and tensions in the workplace start with a misunderstood or poorly conceived written message. At one time they were mostly emails but today they can also be text messages sent through sms or messaging apps.

Written messages have the massive disadvantage that they convey only the words, without the tone of voice, body language, gestures and other signals that usually complete the message with context. Added to that there is also another layer of cultural uncertainty when the message is sent to someone who does not share the same context.

People who receive a message tend to read it in their mind with the most hostile possible tone, seeing conflict, criticism and provocation where none was intended. Perhaps the person writing "What do you mean...?" is not actually annoyed but is simply asking for information. Maybe the person from another country who addresses you in what you believe to be a disrespectful way is not aware of the subtle distinctions in your language. And maybe the older person who ends text messages with a "." does not intend to indicate annoyance, though some people might use punctuation this way.

Because of all these possible misunderstandings the safest way to interpret and respond to any message is to give the sender the benefit of the doubt and assume that they meant the kindest possible interpretation. Where this is impossible because the intent to provoke or insult is evident beyond any doubt it is still best to de-escalate the conflict and respond only to the content of the words and ignore the tone. If someone calls you an idiot and asks for the minutes of the meeting then send them the minutes of the meeting, ignoring the rest.

Responding in this way might take away the satisfaction of responding with something intended to sting, but it is more likely to help you achieve your goals. In every organization I have come across people are evaluated on their business goals, not on how many email wars they have won. At the same time you will also find that just ignoring the offensive parts of messages will reduce your stress level and signal to management that you are someone to watch.

Lectures, Workshops, Coaching and Writing

For lectures, interactive workshops and one-to-one coaching about effective written communication and influencing skills you can contact Andrew Hennigan at or 0046 73 089 44 75.


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