When two kids get into a fight, a parent trying to sort things out may hear an angry confession: “I hit him first, but he hit me harder!” The accused typically replies with an indignant, “Did not!”
Both combatants may be telling the truth.
A team of neuroscientists asked volunteers to press one finger against a partner’s finger. They then told partners to press back with equal force. In every case, the return force was greater than the original pressure. “What began as a game of soft touches quickly became a game of moderate pokes and then hard prods, even though both volunteers were doing their level best to respond in kind,” reported the researchers. “Each volunteer was convinced that he was responding with equal force and that for some reason the other volunteer was escalating.”
Our brains underestimate the amount of force we exert by about 40 percent, the researchers found. As a result, conflicts can quickly escalate, even when both parties believe they’re acting with restraint.
We also tend to underestimate the effects of negative emotions in email. When we communicate face-to-face, we can soften harsh words by smiling, using a calm and gentle tone, or reaching out to touch another person. Email lacks those nonverbal cues. As a result, says Daniel Goleman, our brains have a negativity bias towards emails. If a sender writes an email with a positive tone, readers tend to interpret the tone as neutral. If the sender intends the tone to be neutral, readers often interpret it as negative.
To make matters worse, if a reader is offended by an email, the sender has no immediate way of knowing that. In conversation, we can correct a misunderstanding or apologize on the spot. With email, the first clue that we’ve given offense may be an angry reply or a long self-justifying response. These replies are often interpreted more aggressively than they are intended. As a result, simple misunderstandings can easily escalate into conflict.
When the tone of an email exchange starts to turn negative, you can keep things from escalating by picking up the phone or having a face-to-face conversation. If you must reply by email, give yourself time to cool off before you send a response. Check your tone by reading your message aloud or asking someone you trust to review it for anything that might cause offense. Stick to the facts as much as possible. Position yourself as your reader’s ally rather than as an opponent.
While these strategies won’t prevent all email conflicts, they can reduce misunderstandings and lower the likelihood that angry exchanges will escalate into hostile attacks .
Notes: Sukhwinder S. Shergill is the lead author of “Two Eyes for an Eye: The Neuroscience of Force Escalation,” reported in Science, July 11, 2003: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/301/5630/187.citation
Daniel Goleman explains the negativity bias of email in Empathy and Email: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBCiSAJ20Wc
Raymond A. Friedman and Stephen C. Currall are the authors of “Email Escalation: Dispute Exacerbating Elements of Electronic Communication” (2002): http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=304966