Mouse-to-Mouse Conflict

Six ways to avoid an email battle

I knew better than to hit the send button on my keyboard, but I did it anyway. I wanted Gretchen (not her real name) to understand my feelings about her early-morning message. Her request sounded innocent enough: "Would you cover my spot this Sunday while I'm on vacation?" But the polite tone didn't fool me for a minute. As she'd done so often, Gretchen had assumed I'd serve without her asking me first. Once again she'd substituted my name for hers on the ministry schedule before she sent the email. Her "request" was a sham. Like always, I felt abused and taken for granted.

After I launched my reply, I read back through it. Firm but controlled, I thought as I scrolled down the lines. I doubted Gretchen would ever guess how much I resented her arrogance.

Boy, was I wrong.

Conflict resolution experts tell us the most effective communication takes place face to face, not mouse to mouse. But the hours we spend in front of our computer screens may tempt us to ignore that advice. Why wait to make a phone call when we can fire off an email and move a problem off our desk? Why not address grievances from a safe distance so no one sees our anger or frustration?

Looking back, I recognize ways I could have avoided denting my relationship with Gretchen. And I'd like to think it won't happen again. But our anti-virus/anti-spam software doesn't come with guarantees we'll never find provocative or stinging messages in our inboxes. Sometimes we'll be able to deal with the clashes in person or by phone. Other times we may need to respond through a reply button. When circumstances demand a keyboard-driven answer, here are six tips for making those confrontations more successful.

1. Remember the Rules. All the advice we've read about communication and relationships—look for win/win solutions, seek understanding before being understood—still applies in this tech-crazy world. We just have to adapt the rules to new communication formats. Consider this cardinal rule for example: My desire to vent my feelings doesn't entitle me to trample someone else's feelings. I might have remembered that rule if I'd talked with Gretchen in person, but I forgot it when interfacing by computer. In fact, I forgot or ignored most of what I've learned about confronting people in a caring manner. Since that interchange, I've tried to visualize the other person's face when my correspondence tackles a touchy subject. That simple trick reminds me I'm speaking to a person with whom I have a relationship, not an inanimate object.

2. Go for Gentleness. Sarcastic zingers may be fun to write, but they can raise giant stumbling blocks in the communication process. I'm trying to practice Paul's challenge from Philippians 4:5: "Let your gentleness be evident to all." When we confront someone in person, we convey gentleness through our voices and body language. In emails and texts, we inject gentleness through our words, remembering that we're speaking to the heart as well as the mind. So what happens when I'd rather hammer someone than tap their shoulder? First I remember gentleness is a fruit of the Holy Spirit's presence in my life (Galatians 5:22-23). If I don't have the right attitude, I know the reason. Then I think of gentle giants I know, people who balance firmness with kindness, and I emulate their voices as I write.

3. Pray for Insight. When we communicate electronically, we can't see a friend's slumped shoulders or hear the stress in her voice. Even when we instant message, the computer robs us of vital clues we need to interpret correctly someone's words and the attitude behind them. That's why it pays to read a message several times and ask some questions. Is there another way to interpret the message? Do I have all the information about a problem? Am I reading something between the lines? What's the real bone of contention? I use those questions as I pray for wisdom, sometimes touching the words on my screen as I talk to God. Then I'm ready to write.

4. Sandwich the Negatives. My mom and dad always prefaced their discipline with reminders of how much they loved me, and they followed every spanking with a hug. The same approach works in conflict management when we sandwich criticisms between respect and sincere appreciation. Confrontation isn't the time for using short, clipped sentences devoid of nouns or a flurry of emoticons so we can move on to other things. We'll dial down the conflict only when we show more concern for the person than the issue. And that requires an honest effort to see and articulate more of what's right than what's wrong. If I'd focused on the goal Gretchen and I share, glorifying God in our lives and ministries, my concerns would have been cushioned by consideration. And I wouldn't have spent weeks repairing the damage to a friendship.

5. Delay When Possible. Pastor Chuck Swindoll once said he never regretted the words he didn't say. Just as counting to ten helps us guard our tongues, cooling-off periods guard our fingers. We need time to let our reactions subside before we type words we'll regret. Delays may not be popular with those who text and Twitter, but I value patience's virtue more than ever in today's rush-rush culture. Because I don't want to start a ping-pong match of angry messages, I've learned to write out my thoughts, save them as a draft, and revisit them when my emotions have cooled. If I must respond by a deadline, I set a timer to allow me time to think while I deal with other tasks. Either way, I've learned not to hit the send button until I've weighed the potential damage of a premature response.

6. Read It Aloud. We're mistaken if we think an email allows us to hide our true feelings. If the recipient of a message knows me, she can probably hear my voice saying the words and picture the look on my face as well. After my disastrous exchange with Gretchen, I tried to assert my innocence by reading the inciting email to my husband. It didn't work; I was guilty as charged. We both pegged the offensive phrase as soon as I read it, and my tone revealed the sorry attitude implied by my words. I've now learned to read a problematic message aloud or have someone read it to me as a final review. That way I can hear the words as someone else might hear them and change them if needed.

In his book Relationships 101: What Every Leader Needs to Know, bestselling author John Maxwell wrote, "When it comes to relationships, everything begins with respect, with the desire to place value on other people." Aretha Franklin's signature song taught us how to spell respect. The relationship challenges of an email society will teach us how to use it.

Donna Savage is a freelance writer, pastor's wife, worship leader, and Bible teacher.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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