Our church uses email regularly for announcements, prayer updates, and notes between staff. But one thing we no longer do with email is handle conflict. We learned the hard way. Email is not suited for dealing with conflict. Here are a few reasons why:
1. E-mail doesn't convey emotion well. Face-to-face, you can gauge emotion by watching body language. But with email or instant messaging, readings of emotional tone are often wrong. People read into things what they think you feel.
During one heart-to-heart online conversation, being a fast typist, I responded quickly to each of my friend's posts. I noticed she became defensive and the conversation ended. It was weeks before I realized she had been offended by the speed of my replies. She interpreted my rapid posts to mean I was angry. After making peace, we agreed to talk in person next time.
2. Email is a read-and-reply culture. If you are angry, it's all too easy to "vent and send" before investigating the facts.
At our previous church, one of our volunteers heard about a budget issue that made him angry. He immediately fired off a harshly critical missive regarding the church's leadership. While every member has a right to raise questions, his email was inflammatory and based on misinformation. Checking the facts beforehand would have kept his message out of the "outgoing" folder.
3. Online conflict spreads like wildfire. It's too easy to forward email to lots of people, many of whom may not need to get involved. Add to this the varying frequency that people check email, and soon no one knows who has seen what, which only adds more fuel to the fire.
I was surprised one Sunday morning to learn of a heated, critical email generated by a key leader. I was even more shocked to learn who had received it. Current leadership, past leadership, and others who were completely uninvolved in the issues-all were blind copied. Fortunately, the situation was contained and the author issued a personal apology to the entire distribution list-but only after a face-to-face visit from the pastor. Some things are best handled in person.
Now, when an incendiary email comes across my desk, I fire off a non-defensive reply, but with an invitation: "I'd be happy to get together with you to talk about this issue. Give me a call, and let's set up a time."
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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