The Tone Gap: How to Prevent an E-mail Disaster

Ever received an e-mail response that struck you as the communication equivalent of Whac-A-Mole? Maybe you got a curt “see below” when you sent a question to a peer in an e-mail chain. You felt clobbered by your peer’s abrupt, dismissive tone. Instead of getting clarification (you already knew the answer was not below), you felt hammered by Ms. Snippy or Mr. Ever-rude.

Now let’s reverse the scenario. YOU’RE the one who sends the response. You know your peer is under deadline, so you reply pronto (mid-meeting from your Blackberry, to boot). You don’t intend to be abrasive – you believe the answer they’re seeking is in the e-mail chain below and you’re trying to guide them to the right spot in a timely manner.

See the difference? It’s the tone gap.

There’s often a profound difference between the tone you intend and the one the receiver experiences. It can be critical because your tone can be an influence maker or an influence breaker. That’s because when you receive an email, you assign the tone. You interpret whether the sender’s tone is helpful, dismissive, playful, snide, warm or cold. Now reverse it. When you send an e-mail, others do the same thing to you. As a result, you may be ticking people off left and right without realizing it. As an executive coach, I’m hearing tonal gap issues playing out with alarmingly increasing frequency. Good people are damaging relationships and being held back from leadership advancements because they’re unaware they’re alienating their bosses, peers and clients.

Here’s the thing: e-mail communication lacks the three human signals that indicate tone. 1) There’s no warmth of voice. 2) No body language. 3) No facial expressions. Faced with a lack of tone, people often assign your words the worst possible tone – especially if you happen to catch them when they’re under stress or in a grumpy mood. It’s particularly important when e-mailing people who don’t know you well enough to “hear” your voice accurately.

How can you prevent a tone gap? Make it a connecting habit to add intentional warmth. I don’t mean to pour on the syrup with fake, sticky-sweet e-mails. That would defeat my Talk Less, Say More mantra. Instead, three tiny tweaks can make an enormous difference in how people interpret your typing tone and boost your ability to influence.

Here are three quick tips to add intentional warmth:

  1. Start with the person’s name. A simple personalized “Hi Les” or even just “Les,” signals that you’re thoughtful and respectful and don’t intend to cop an attitude.
  2. Add a warm connecting sentence to the top such as “Good to hear from you,” “Thanks for your quick response,” or “I appreciate your input.” Make a habit of re-reading your e-mails before hitting “send” and adding a connecting sentence. This can prevent your tone from coming across as blunt or dictatorial.
  3. Sign off in a friendly manner with your first name, such as “Best regards, Elizabeth,” or “Thanks, Elizabeth.” Insert this before your signature file which generally contains your full name. Inserting your first name suggests a more personal, friendly tone.

The bottom line is this: we judge ourselves by our intentions, but we judge others by their actions. Make adding warmth an intentional connecting habit and you’ll tame the tone gap, come across as you want and achieve the results you desire.

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Globally recognized as the leading voice in leadership influence, Connie Dieken helps C-suite and senior executives use scientific insights to elevate their influence and presence.


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