Communication Laws - When to Use Email or Pick Up the Phone

Apr 1, 2014
5 Min Read

If you’re like a lot of people, you rely far too heavily on email, even when you’d be better served by talking in real time. That impulse is understandable. After all, email lets you carefully think through exactly what you want to say, choose the perfect words, and avoid the risk of accidentally blurting out something you’ll later regret. And it also lets you avoid conversations that might be awkward if they happen face-to-face.

But while email is a perfectly sound tool in many cases, some topics call for a real-time conversation – meaning a discussion in-person, or at least over the phone.

That’s not to say that you need to communicate in real time for everything – you don’t – but you should be thoughtful about what communication mode you choose, and you should keep in mind that email and other written forms of communication are notorious for causing miscommunications about tone and intent.

5 times you should never use email, and an unbreakable rule

You should never use email for any of the following:

1. Giving critical feedback, especially serious or nuanced feedback.

2. Talking about complex projects or tasks where you need to hash out what the outcome should look like, explain complicated or nuanced information, or otherwise have a discussion as opposed to simply assigning.

3. Delivering a difficult, sensitive, or sticky message, such as turning someone down for a raise or promotion, discussing concerns about attendance, or ending someone’s pet project.

4. Anything likely to be heated or conflict-filled, or even just where your tone could be misinterpreted.

5. Any topics where part of the value of communicating at all is in the discussion (such as talking about performance concerns) and where a one-way delivery of information will deprive you of that.

And here’s the unbreakable rule of email: If you’re dreading the conversation or it feels uncomfortable to you, you shouldn’t be using email. That’s the sign of a conversation that’s sufficiently delicate, emotionally charged, or ripe for misinterpretation that you should have a conversation, not send an email.

2 times to put it in writing

But let’s not give email short shrift. It’s a hugely valuable communication tool (there’s a reason, after all, that most of us have embraced it so heartily). And while email is good for plenty of routine communications, there are two times in particular when email really shines:

  • When you want a written record of what was said – to refer back to later or provide documentation of what was relayed
  • When something is so complicated that you want someone to have details in writing, such as a new procedure for database entries or login instructions for your website

Ultimately, all of this is about choosing the communication tool that best fits the situation – not always picking one or the other, or even the one that’s most comfortable, but being thoughtful about what your context demands.

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