Jump off E-mail-go-round and learn to talk

by Gregory Lay, Heartily WorkingTM columnist

Explaining why you’re smarter
than others isn’t smart.


From: Buried By Negative E-Mails

I’m an intelligent person who can’t seem to get credit for it from my boss. Every week, it seems like he finds something I’ve done wrong and sends me a critical e-mail. It’s usually some little picky thing, and he’s usually shooting from the hip without all the facts.

But since he uses e-mail to tell me what’s wrong, I have to answer the e-mail to protect myself. He then sends an e-mail back with a lecture about things I already know. So I respond with more information to explain the real situation, and he responds with another insulting e-mail as if I weren’t bright enough to comprehend simple concepts. This should be a good job, but I hate all these derogatory e-mails – which I’m sure he saves.

Can you suggest a way to explain my position that won’t get a negative response from my boss?


To: Buried

How to explain your position without getting a negative response? Easy – change your position.

You said you’re an intelligent person, so why haven’t you figured out your boss’s basic need? It’s because you’re hung up on your basic need that is, unfortunately, the same as your boss’s.

You’re each cursed with a need to have The Last Word. Since he’s the boss, he wins. If you want to have the last words, use these: “Good point. Thanks.”

You get three rewards for using those words:

1. It’ll save time.
2. Your boss will move on to something else.
3. Since you agreed with him, your boss will agree that you’re intelligent.

Get past your hurt feelings and think from your supervisor’s point of view. He’s coaching via e-mail because he lacks confidence in his one-on-one conversational skills. He has a point to make and can’t stop the exchange until he’s confident you’ve understood his point.

Don’t make the boss ‘wrong’

When you explain your position, he assumes that you didn’t get his point – so he explains it again. You get insulted and try even harder to explain yourself. The two of you going ‘round and ‘round look like kids on a playground ride, unwilling to be the first to hop off. Get off the ride! Your back-and-forth e-mails aren’t about the subject on which he’s trying to correct you – they’re about your ability to acknowledge his information without seeming to argue.

When you send back an e-mail to “protect yourself,” it’s seen as an attempt to make your boss wrong – which stirs his self-protective instinct. One of you must get over it and let the other feel okay about himself. Since it wasn’t your boss asking how to do that, guess who has to make the first move?

If there’s really more information that your boss needs, then you must practice better timing. The moment to deliver that information isn’t when he’s just sent a corrective e-mail. Let him relax with the trust that you’ve understood his point, then choose a smart time to clarify the process when his guard isn’t up and he may be amenable to adopting your suggestion as his new idea.

So step one is to control your instinctive reaction to explain yourself. Step two is to get out of the e-mail habit and start talking.

To write or speak?

It sounds like you and your boss are avoiding conversation by hiding in your e-mails. It keeps you distant and avoids mutual support and understanding. One of you must open the door to verbal communication, and since you’re the one that wrote…

Every time you get an annoying e-mail, your tactic is to choose not to notice the annoying aspect and process it as if it were a friendly reminder from a trusted leader who only has the best of intentions toward you. Respond verbally with understanding and appreciation for his help. If you have the wisdom and stamina to maintain that strategy, your relationship will have an opportunity to evolve into something significantly more comfortable and supportive.

So when you see a new e-mail from your boss, don’t tighten up and worry about what you’ve done wrong. Consciously choose to assume it’s from your ally with a helpful comment, for which you expect to say, “Good point – thanks!”

Think of all the extra work you’ll get done using the time you used to waste on e-mails!

Since you suspect he’s saving the e-mails, you do the same. Just note when you verbally acknowledged the message and any follow-up conversations. In the worst case, these may end up being a protective file – but your higher purpose is to create a tracking system to make sure that you’re fulfilling your supervisor’s intentions and not being inadvertently rebellious over his communication habits.


Memo from Tim Ferriss: “Do not e-mail first thing in the morning or last thing at night. The former scrambles your priorities and plans for the day, and the latter just gives you insomnia.”

JobWise: Rearrange Your Reminders

Anything that’s been in one place for six months is no longer seen – it has become part of the scenery, like a street sign you don’t need to know where you are. If you have vision statements, motivational posters, or job reminders that have dust on them, take them down for a couple of weeks, then put them back up in different places.

Thanks to the new location, they’ll be read again and have value – at least until they’ve collected a new layer of dust.

© 2009 Heartily WorkingTM

Gregory Lay’s Heartily WorkingTM responds to your questions about workplace concerns. Send your questions to Ask@HeartilyWorking.com.