Thursday, January 31, 2008

Emailing It In - Part 2

Given its popularity and ease of use, it can be tempting to make extensive use of email during conflict. Is that a good thing? Well, maybe not. You may wish to check out some of the arguments against using email to differentiate or carry on negotiations which I wrote about in last week's post.

For this week, I'd like to focus attention on some of the good that can come from the use of email, keeping the weaknesses and limitations mentioned last week firmly in mind.

First, if both parties are careful, the use of email makes it possible to engage in the process of resolving conflict with biblical same-mindedness when other more interactive means of communicating are not available. If the other means of communicating interactively are available, it is preferable to use them. If not, it is possible to be sufficiently effective with something like email, as long as conflict participants guard themselves against various manifestations of self-absorbed communication patterns. For example, it would be quite important for emailing parties to carefully check for the shared sense of understanding that is so vital to effective communication.

Second, email might be useful as a tool for organizing and "pre-expressing" one's thoughts to facilitate calm and an articulate, cohesive presentation when the opportunity to communicate interactively presents itself. In other words, the use of email can provide you with a kind of dry-run through what you want to say once you're given the chance. This makes it possible for you to self-edit against any emotionally charged or blaming language you might be tempted to use. It also creates a checklist of points and associated information to be remembered once you are able to meet with your counterpart face to face.

Recently, I had to interact with someone on a somewhat controversial issue. I knew going in that we had different perspectives and different interests. So I wrote the person an email of my thoughts (and arguments), but I never sent it. Later, when we spoke with each other about the issue over the phone, I used the email as a set of notes to remind me of things I knew we would need to discuss.

By the way, if you choose to email in this way, I advise you not to put the other person's contact info in the "To:" box. If you do and you absent-mindedly press the "send" button out of habit when you're finished writing, you'd better be really happy with what you wrote.

Finally, if all parties to a conflict were to use email to outline their thoughts about whatever issue was before them and if they were also to remove all emotionally charged and inflammatory language from what they wrote, the group might end up with a more "neutral" expression of the group's mind on the issue; which, in turn, might help the group to craft solutions that truly match up to interests rather than to emotions or other kinds of influences.

We know that email, or at least some form of not-so-interactive electronic communication, is here to stay for a long time. On balance, even though we can find some potential good in the use of email for differentiating and negotiating conflict, the pursuit of biblical same-mindedness is better served with face-to-face, interactive communication.

Application and Discussion Questions:
1. What other upsides or downsides of using email in conflict can you think of?
2. In Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus tells us to "go and be reconciled to your brother." Does something like email or text messaging count as obedience to this command? Why or why not?
3. Have you ever pre-planned something to say or do when interacting with a counterpart in conflict only to find yourself thinking and speaking differently once you were with them face to face? What about being face to face changed your attitude or your actual communication with them?
4. What other Scripture might apply to this topic?

Note: For more information on the process of biblical same-mindedness, check out "Where Do We Go From Here: The Path To Biblically Resolving Conflict" by Randal L. Gilmore. Available here.

See also "Risks of Email" by Anita D. Bhappu and Zoe I. Barsness in The Negotiator's Fieldbook, edited by Schneider and Honeyman.


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