You’ve Got Mail

Sherri Stigler

Again this morning, I found myself in receipt of a particularly pointed and “pitchy” email from a supervisor in response to an email question I had posed to the group. As I sat steaming at my desk, I read and re-read every single word, desperately trying to figure out how on earth that supervisor could have possibly misinterpreted my question. Once I cooled down a couple of degrees, it dawned on me that without that supervisor appreciating my “intention,” I could almost (kinda sorta) understand how he may have taken it the wrong way.

In a perfect world, we would communicate face-to-face on every issue. But as you all know, especially in our 24/7 operations, we have no choice but to use email or messaging to deliver and receive information. It is a necessary tool in our environment, but also a fertile ground for misunderstandings, inappropriate “boldness,” and hurt feelings.

We need a better way to deal with difficult conversations prompted by emails and other messaging platforms. My director tells us to “sit on” or “sleep on” these messages, which is excellent advice adopted by many at our center.

Oh the stories our “draft emails” could tell! Sometimes, in my most heated moments at the keyboard, I’ll type out an email detailing exactly how that individual’s message made me feel and explain precisely what they can do with whatever it is they’ve done to get my dander up. I feel better and then delete the email. I send the “real” message, asking if we can meet to discuss the problem.

How do we fix this digital communication breakdown?

We need to start applying what I call a “keyboard to face” approach. When you sit down to type a message or an email, mentally picture that the person is seated in front of you and you both are engaging in a reasonable, rational, and professional conversation, face-to-face.

Hiding behind the comfort of a desk and many shifts away from our recipient, we tend to be bolder with our words as we type, sometimes to a fault. Things we would never say to that person directly slither their way into the text of a message, again, leaving the recipient with a negative feeling about what was sent and read.

A few terse or accusatory words discredit your message because people tend to stop reading the positive and focus on the negative. The negative is not easy to overcome; the message can mimic a virtual “slap” in the face of the intended target.

Hurried and minimal writing skills can also result in messages that are nonsensical. Poor grammar and misspelled words could cause your recipients to completely miss the magic in your message! If this describes your writing style, or you’d like a refresher course, consider taking a course in person or online. Talk to your employer, as there may be low-cost or no-cost options as part of the training and development departments. Advocate for yourself, and take the time to improve your writing. Skill in writing will continue to be an important part of your career—as an emergency dispatcher, a supervisor, or as a manager/director.

Finally, before you hit the “send” button, check your email. Check your tone. Check to see if your message passes the “keyboard to face” test. If it doesn’t, don’t send it. Delete. Type a new one that reads something like this: ”I’d love to sit down with you and discuss this so that we have a good understanding about how to move forward. Please let me know what day/time works best for you!”

You won’t regret it, I promise. Good writing, everyone!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Sherri Stigler is the Training and Operations Manager for Waukesha County Communications, Wisconsin, USA, a combined dispatch center in southeastern Wisconsin, just west of Milwaukee, a land where the beer runs freely and locals proudly stack cheese on just about everything and call it great.

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