At some point, I had sent an email, I believe making an unpopular request, and received an annoyed response. I brought the email to my supervisor, the department head, to get his advice on how to respond. And he gave me some advice that has been one of the most valuable pieces of advice of my administrative career, and that I’ve relied on in all subsequent administrative positions.
In certain situations… don’t send an email. Walk down the hall and talk to your colleague in person.
You may be thinking that email interactions are much more efficient than face-to-face interactions. That’s true, to a point. But when the email leads to an interaction escalation, it can actually be much more efficient to talk to someone in person.
Here are situations where walking down the hall to talk to someone face-to-face, rather than sending an email, might be beneficial:
- You have to ask a favor of someone
- You have negative or disappointing news to share with someone
- Someone sent you an email, and your reply may not be the answer they want
- The recipient may misinterpret your email
- Your colleague might perseverate on your email before you have time to respond to follow up questions (particularly if you have any supervisory authority over the other person)
- You have been having an email exchange with someone, and the tone between the two of you is escalating in negativity
Stopping an escalating email exchange and suggesting a face-to-face meeting instead may be the hardest one to do, because you’ve already started a pattern. When you’ve emailed someone, and they’ve emailed you back something snarky or rude, it’s easy to want to snap back with a response. But this situation might also be one of the most important for changing it to a face-to-face interaction. For instance, a few years ago, when I was grad director, a colleague sent an email disagreeing with a new departmental policy that had been discussed in a faculty meeting. I responded quickly with what I thought was straightforward clarification of the policy (of course, I have no idea how she interpreted the email). The colleague quickly responded with what I interpreted as a snarky email. So I quickly responded, trying, I thought, to deescalate. She then responded with more snark. And then I finally (and later in the interaction than I should have) responded by saying something like, it sounds like you’re getting upset about this policy, and that obviously wasn’t my intent. I think it makes sense if we try to talk about it in person. Do you have any time tomorrow? When we chatted in person the next day, we were both calmer, and admitted that we should have stopped the emails sooner – she said she had gone without dinner, was at a child’s sporting event, and wasn’t in a good place to be discussing a potentially sensitive topic. The face-to-face interaction undid some damage we had started, and transitioning to face-to-face sooner would have probably caused even less negativity between us.
Since these earlier experiences, I’ve really tried to have these types of conversations in person, or at least by phone, when possible. My new health strategy of walking the stairs hourly helps in this regard as well – sometimes I bump into someone and can quickly chat about something I want to address, in the stairwell.
Sometimes as an administrator, when you show up at someone’s office door, their immediate reaction is “uh oh.” I know when I was on the other side of that door I often had that “Am I in trouble?” gut reaction? That’s why it helps to also pop by people’s offices sometimes just to say hi, or to give good news as well.
Email is great for so many things. It’s efficient. It leaves an electronic trail of what was said/asked/promised. You can send it when the rest of the world is sleeping (whether that’s 4:00 AM when you first get up or 2:00 AM before you go to bed). But email lacks many things that face-to-face interaction has, such as facial expression, body language, tone, and the ability to interpret these in your conversational partner. Some conversations really require the subtlety of taking the time to walk down the hall.
“Walk down the hall: The importance of in person meetings first appeared on Eva Lefkowitz’s blog on November 15, 2018.”