People often do things like send an email as a follow-up to a phone call, and, within the email, refer to things from the phone call that can’t be understood unless you participated in the phone call. Conflict emails should be written in such a way that all context is provided in the email itself.
For example: A widget manufacturer sends 10,000 widgets to a client, and 5,000 widgets are damaged. The customer is upset, and the manufacturer and customer discuss over the phone what to do. The manufacturer agrees to send 5,000 additional widgets right away, and to provide a significant discount going forward. The customer agrees. But, after the manufacturer sends an email to the customer summing up what they’ll be doing to make the situation right, the customer changes their mind and rejects the offer, deciding instead to sue the manufacturer. The email, with no reference to the phone call, now serves as proof that the manufacturer admits fault.
You may find yourself sitting on a witness stand, having to read back your own words in front of a jury. So, pick words carefully, be respectful, stick to facts, and show that you are reasonable.
In our non-business relationships, we see it as a virtue to admit fault—even when things aren’t our fault, we think of conceding ground to someone we care about as a sign of goodwill and desire to reconcile. It is a smart and mature way to handle disputes with people we care about in our personal lives.
That should not be your strategy in a business communication. In a conflict email, you should not admit to something that isn’t true. Don’t say you could have done something differently in an effort to win ground with your adversary. This doesn’t mean your conflict email shouldn’t be respectful, it just means you should keep in mind that you are not speaking with your spouse or best friend, and adjust your communication accordingly.
Body language and non-verbal communication cues are lost in an email. Consider, before sending an email, if you’re better off speaking on the phone, having a video chat, or meeting in person (after coronavirus lockdown ends).
Also, remember how easily emails can be forwarded and shared.
It’s a good idea to write an email if you’re correcting somebody else’s mistake, and you want the truth noted for the record, or if you need to add context to what someone else said in an email.
Conflict emails should not be sent to punish somebody, to get something off your chest, or to vent. Conflict emails should contain an action item and should be written and sent with the goal of advancing the discussion.
Remember as well that silence is also a viable option.