Crucial Conversations via Email

Dear Steve,

Having successfully used and trained Crucial Conversations for many years, I believe in its efficacy for making difficult communication easier, more respectful, and more productive. My question is around whether it’s ever preferable to preface a crucial conversation by using email. Might this pave the way for a more congenial exchange later on by allowing you to express your ideas without risk of having them interrupted mid-sentence, and also allow the other person time to digest, process, and formulate his or her reactions to your communication without feeling the heat of the moment (and with it, the natural fight or flight response)? Or, because of the one-way, nonverbal nature of email communication, might this approach do more harm than good as a starting point?

Pondering a Preface

Dear Pondering,

A while back, I found myself surrounded by unions. I frequently worked in unionized environments in a number of different organizations. The group dynamics in these environments were, well, “interesting” (feel free to insert your descriptor here based on your own experience). Sometimes, it was more interesting and sometimes less. But, regardless of the organization, it always became more interesting the closer it got to contract negotiation time.

At one point, I worked with two different organizations on issues related to hammering out a new contract. And in one of those organizations, it felt like a literal hammering. They referred to the negotiations as, “The blood bath on the lake shore” (it’s original name was too long and not family-friendly, so they shortened it to this).

In the other negotiation, it felt completely different. The atmosphere was collegial, rather than adversarial. Instead of preparing for battle, they prepared for agreement. There was a lot of similarities between the two: Both involved well-established, relatively strong, unions. Both organizations were similar in size. Both were considering touchy subjects and controversial positions. And yet, the whole mood and feel surrounding the negotiations were noticeably different. Why?

I was so taken aback, I asked an HR director at the non-“blood bath” organization if the actual negotiations were as pleasant as normal, everyday interactions seemed to be. The response: “Well, since Randy become Union President, they have been. He’s changed the whole way we go about the negotiations.”

We talked about a number of different things, but the practice she seemed to think made the biggest difference was almost insignificant. She said that before each big negotiation, he emailed exactly what they would ask for in the meeting. “I don’t want there to be any big surprises in the meetings,” he would say. And he always demonstrated his true intent was cooperation by sticking to those items he sent in advance, and/or advising of any shifts or amendments prior to the meetings.

Now, this didn’t take all the crucial out of the conversation, but it went a long way to reduce the strong emotions that arise from feeling like you’ve just been ambushed. And so, while there are some conversations that should never be conducted over email, there are ways you can align your email use with Crucial Conversations principles.

Before we jump in to appropriate uses, let’s pause for a Crucial Conversations caveat. If you think it will become, or has the potential to become crucial, it’s best to hold conversations in-person so you can pick up on non-verbals and adjust the level of safety as necessary. When it’s not possible to have face-to-face meetings, then opt for a tele-conference (phone or video apply here). And as a last option, settle for email. Are you getting an idea of the principle here? Use email to augment, not supplant your in-person discussions. So when and how can email be used?

While the most frequent application for email is as a follow-up to a crucial conversation to ensure we have a documented form of who is going to do what and by when, I think the more interesting application is the way the Union President used email during negotiations. In terms of crucial conversations, I think this approach is especially useful when working with creating Mutual Purpose and STATE-ing your path. And because I think the union example fits nicely as a Mutual Purpose application, I’ll focus on the STATE side of things.

When you have a Left-Hand Column (see the work of Chris Argyris for more on this concept) that’s occupying a lot of your mental capacity, it can be useful to write it out in an email prior to the pending conversation, but only if you complete the following pre-work before hitting the send button.

Write it out and pare it down. When using STATE, it’s helpful to remember that we’re not trying to prove our Left-Hand Column, but rather help the other person understand how we got to that conclusion. You want your perspective to be as concise as possible without losing the meaning of how you really feel. Try to capture the essence of the Left-Hand Column in two to three sentences.

Once you have it distilled to the essence, then work on making sure it’s tentative and that you’ve built enough safety around the concern to avoid having others spiral off into the misinterpretations of intent. And because you won’t be able to be present to see when and if people start to feel unsafe, it’s a good idea to go a little further than usual to create safety. Make sure you clarify your positive intent in sending the email, or provide some context as to why you are sending the email in the first place. Or even send an email indicating your desire to send an email about your Left-Hand Column.

If you try prefacing the actual conversation with an email only to find that you’re spending a good deal of time explaining/justifying why you sent the email, or finding that you’re spending more time than usual working to establish safety during the conversation, then back off the email and return to the face-to-face approach. And just remember, when you’re thinking about whether or not to use a preface, it’s used most effective when it is pre face-to-face. See what I did there?

Best of luck,

Steve Willis

As one of the original trainers at VitalSmarts, Steve has been on the forefront of developing award-winning training programs, perfecting quality training platforms, and delivering training content that has influenced more than 500,000 people to date. In addition, Steve has trained and certified thousands of employees, managers, and trainers from Fortune 500 companies across the nation.






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