Whoever started that tidbit about how emails shouldn’t be read into was outright lying. Emails are made of words. And words are fully loaded with meaning. You can twist them around. Toss them. Fast-pitch a strike with one.
You. Can. Deliver. Them. Slowly. ¡Accentuate them! And nowadays, you can even #Accessorize. :)
Then there’s oral communication: A tête-à-tête dialogue is like a game of tennis. A heart-wrenching breakup like a wrestling match. An intense debate is like playing a championship tournament. Yes, the conversation is one of the oldest sports on earth.
Words, in any kind of exchange, do score points. Positive points and negative ones. They can be used constructively to encourage, comfort and illustrate our love. But words exchanged in the throes of discontent, anger and sadness can be outright lethal. Understanding the origin of words when they are sent our way is key to not only keeping the peace at home, but for maintaining healthy professional relationships. When studying this seemingly “simple” email transaction below our sixth sense is likely to tell us that something is lurking beneath the surface.
Email From Colleague (3:45pm): Hi lady, I was wondering what the status is for the quarterly financial report? Jim said he wants it by 5pm today and I still have to do a round of edits before getting it printed.
Colleague Responds (4:05pm): I’m sorry, are you talking about the PFCD Third Quarter Analysis? I’ve been hustling on other priorities and haven’t gotten to that yet. Didn’t know Jim wanted it by 5pm. Will try to get it to you in an hour.
Psychology Today defines passive-aggression as “a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger.” While it is certainly demonstrated through actions, it is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the words a person chooses to use when interfacing with another. Angelica Perez-Litwin, PhD, a clinical psychologist practitioner, and founder of New Latina, says that “At the core, [passive-aggressive individuals] are angry and upset, but are unable to express how they feel to you because they are afraid of consequences.” Take the email example above as an example.
- No, I’m not really sorry. I know exactly what you’re talking about but you interrupted me and I don’t appreciate it.
- I’ve got bigger fish to fry. Yours isn’t one of them.
- I did know, but I don’t care.
- Cancel your evening plans. If I have to stay late, so do you.
The email may no doubt trigger feelings of frustration, anger and outright rage within the recipient. And while the immediate repercussion may vary from mild to severe; the charge may begin, or continue to foster, a negative series of events that will lead to an unhealthy and toxic dynamic.
Perez-Litwin adds that “like any other interpersonal interaction, passive-aggressive emails can be emotionally draining, confusing and toxic. Within the context of work or business, passive-aggressive emails are inefficient, waste time and limit productivity.”
But humans are humans. We’re flawed and too many times, we take the bait. How would you respond in this situation?
Venus Williams vs. Anna Kournikova: Strike one back with that powerful Venus Williams backhand.
Thanks! Sorry you have a full plate. :( I mentioned Jim needed it by 5pm during our staff meeting today. Will let him know it’s coming.
Channel Your Inner Marlen Esparza with a Double Right Hook: You saw this boxer and six-time U.S. National Champion on CNN’s Latino in America.
Sounds good. I’ve cc’d Jim here so he’s in the loop. I have an event I must go to tonight and won’t be around to do the printing. I’ll leave instructions for you on my desk.
Royal Flush Beats a Full House: Call her bluff and pull rank.
Thanks! I hope you don’t mind, I just spoke to Maggie [Colleague’s Supervisor]. She said it’s okay for you to stop on the financial projections you’re working on in order to meet Jim’s deadline. Meet you in the printing room in 5! ;)
CHANGE THE NAME OF THE GAME
Reader, you likely know by now that the right answer is none of the above. “I would suggest stop the emails and pick up the phone,” says Perez-Litwin. “This will help clarify what’s truly going on.” When dealing with a passive-aggressive person, you may have to “give them the space and the opportunity to express themselves to you. Avoid responding with anger and come across as supportive, but clear on how their behavior is not productive,” she adds. And whatever you do, do not engage in battle. Instead, this becomes an opportunity for you to take a deep breath and rise above:
- Control Your Temper: If your irons hot, now is not the time to strike. Your words will create an incendiary situation that will erupt like wildfire. Hold back. Come back when you’ve cooled off.
- Avoid the Double Loops: You know the cycle. You ask, “What’s wrong?” They respond with, “nothing.” Do not get sucked into a round of debate. Clear any emotional overtones from your exchange, be as direct and straight to the point as you can. Do not allow yourself to be victimized by their behavior.
- Offer Consolation but Don’t Coddle: Humans want to be acknowledged, and appreciate feeling needed. We’re all stressed for time, overloaded, and managing multiple issues at once. That’s okay, but it certainly does not excuse negative behavior. Appeal to their rationale and logical side by discussing how you can move beyond the current impasse.
- If All Else Fails: Sometimes people don’t like each other. No ands, ifs or buts about it. Accept that you’re not going to be best friends. It’s not your job to win them over. But you do have to work together. Your end of the bargain is to create and foster a professional relationship that works for both of you.
MIRROR MIRROR ON THE WALL
And let’s be real. Sometimes we’re the passive-aggressor. “Passive-aggressive behaviors can take different forms such as in procrastination, avoidance, and paralysis,” says Perez-Litwin. “If you find yourself in a situation engaging in any of these behaviors but also feeling guilty or angry about it, that can signal some red flags,” she adds. When you have a hunch that you’re the instigator, review your own words. Choose them wisely. What kind of points are you looking to score? Look inward.