I was reminded this past week about the potentially destructive power of email. Two couples … friends of ours and of each other … are no longer speaking. The rupture is so bad that it’s difficult to imagine how it can be repaired.
The issue isn’t as important as how it was handled. The first couple – who now admit that their first email was a mistake – sent it anyway. The response from the second couple was highly emotional – “scathing” is a word I’ve heard used to describe it. In fact, the clear message was that the friendship was over. The first couple sent another email apologizing and explaining. There has been no response.
I haven’t actually seen any of the emails and I’ve only talked to the first couple about them. However, I think I understand the situation well enough to say that the emails … all of them … should never have been written or, more importantly, sent. In fact, I suspect that they were difficult to write and that both parties wrote at least a couple of versions of them. I also suspect that if everyone was being totally honest with themselves and others, they would say that they wish they could take them back.
Not too long ago, I was angry with an out of state friend. Again, the reason isn’t important. I immediately sat down and wrote an email. Then I wrote another version. I didn’t think I had the right tone, so I wrote it again. This one was better, but I still had a nagging suspicion that it didn’t capture the issue well enough. I decided to wait and try later. The issue weighed on me the rest of the day. I composed different versions of the note in my head. And then I began to think about receiving it as if I were my friend.
That’s when it hit me. This issue was not an email issue. It required a phone call… a real discussion. So the rest of that day and the next I thought about the conversation rather than the words I’d use in an email. It was difficult to pick up the phone to call… but it was absolutely the right thing to do. I learned that my friend felt conflicted by the issue too. We had a great discussion and resolved it easily. A weight had been lifted off my shoulders and we were better friends than ever.
I can’t say that I’ve never sent an email I regret. But I think I’m even less likely to do it in the future given the recent sad story of my two friends.
When I talked to Ray about it, he said that Billy C. Owen, his Master Chief in the Navy, used to say: “Once you pull the trigger, you can’t get the bullet back in the gun.”
The wrong email is like a bullet you can’t get back.
So, I have a new rule for myself: If an issue is potentially emotional, if it’s difficult to write, or if it could be misinterpreted, I’m going to pick up the phone or … even better, if possible … have a face-to-face discussion.
I wish one of our sets of friends would do that now. Maybe, just maybe, it’s not too late?