These days, you might do business with a co-worker for years and never meet them face to face. Maybe they’re in an office across the country or the world, or maybe they — or you — work at home. Whatever the reason behind it, working in a different physical space than your colleagues requires adaptations that you might never have anticipated, when you first started interacting remotely. For example, what happens when you need to negotiate with someone, and you can’t see their facial expressions?
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“It’s been 20 years since business people began to use email, and we still haven’t figured out a way to avoid most of the trouble it causes,” writes Victoria Pynchon at The Muse. “According to Dr. Randi Gunther, a Southern California clinical psychologist, we risk miscommunicating with one another if we fail to use any one of the five modes of communication: words, tone of voice, touch, posture, and facial expressions.”
So how do can you avoid miscommunication, while increasing your chances of getting what you want?
1. Understand what you’re missing.
On the phone or over email, you can’t see body language. So far, so obvious. But that means you’ll have to compensate, both by making your position clear and not assuming that every pause — or every written sentence — means something dire.
2. Be empathetic.
Pynchon offers some sample scripts in her article, any of which will give you a good starting point for a productive email negotiation, but the bottom line is that you’ll have to make words do the job your face and posture would do in person. Express sympathy for your co-worker’s position; inquire genuinely into their situation.
3. Be confident.
In person, it’s easier to indicate good will with body language. Over email, you’ll need to express your intentions — in this case, achieving a resolution that satisfies everyone’s needs. Stating outright that you’re confident you can find a solution that will make both parties happy will underscore the fact that you’re not being obstructionist for the heck of it, or trying to derail your colleague’s projects or goals.
Bottom line: when you have to communicate over email, don’t assume that anything is implicit, be it good will, a common goal, or your intentions.
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