Expressiveness versus effectiveness – or: How to prevent morning-after email remorse

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketDuring the break at a recent Web 2.0 talk I overhead people saying the talk was pitched too high and they weren’t following. They invested a lot of energy into their grumble, but it was wasted – they weren’t telling anyone who could do anything about it.

This got me thinking that venting can be therapeutic, but it rarely gets you a solution, since:

  • You often vent to someone who has no power to fix the problem – your spouse about your boss, a friend about your spouse, the cable guy about your bank manager.
  • If you do speak to someone who can help, you can be so busy letting off steam – I’ve been in this queue since 9.47am – that you fail to ask for what you want – I’d like you to take my forms and send the new checkbook in the mail please.
  • If you’re cross, your manner can make it hard for the person who can help, to want to help – Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries; now where’s my refund?

When faced with a frustrating customer experience, snarky email from a colleague, or other button-pushing situation, I’ve found it helpful to separate the response into two parts:

1. Expressiveness 
Here’s where you rant to a friend, yourself or your therapist. You do it to get something off your chest, to dial down the frustration. This is emotion management, pure and simple. You don’t do it to fix the problem, you do it to feel better. Think of it as taking the emotion offline.

Once you’ve done the expressing that may be enough. Not every frustrating experience has to be handled – some things are just frustrating. But if you do want to fix the situation, you need to change gears.

2. Effectiveness
Being effective involves time, thought and composure. Here’s where you decide what you want to happen, and you work out who to approach and what to ask for. If it’s an email you work out what to put in your reply – and remember, you need to take the emotion offline, not sneak it in between the lines.

To have the best chance of a good solution it helps if you:

  • Address the person with the power
  • Be succinct and clear about what you’d like them to do
  • Be pleasant.

Getting into the habit of disentangling expressiveness from attempts at effectiveness will likely bring you:

  • Less morning-after email remorse following a hot-headed reply
  • Better customer service
  • Less frustration
  • Happier relationships.

Try it! And if it doesn’t work, please vent offline before you tell me about it. 🙂

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