Before you hit, "Reply all," ask yourself, "Am I having a conversation or participating in a drama?"
Many an email conversation has ended poorly when a recipient, in a fit of rage, hit "Reply all." A good rule of thumb is, don't reply all when angry. However, it depends on whether your goal is drama vs. conversation.
An email should be a conversation
An email conversation is a dialogue that typically involves only two people. In this conversation, both participants share the responsibility of communicating respectfully until either the conversation ends naturally or active issues are resolved.
But sometimes, it escalates into drama
An email drama, on the other hand, is an email that has progressed from conversation to full blown stage play involving a plot that builds to conflict and involves a cast of characters, including a main character, a supporting character, and an audience. In the email drama, the main character is the sender, the supporting character is the recipient, and the audience is the CC'ed recipients. Let's unfold the drama from each party's perspective.
The main character (protagonist) invites the audience
The main character in the email drama is the first one to invite the audience to the conversation. Sometimes, the audience is invited for dramatic effect to act as witness. In this case, the main character is saying, "I want you to be aware of this conversation with this recipient." In settings where other people need to be made aware of an important announcement, this "FYI"-type notification may be appropriate. However, it may not be appropriate when emotions are charged. In a charged situation, involving an audience may anger the recipient.
The supporting character decides whether to escalate
The recipient is the supporting character in the drama who gets to decide how to respond. By this time, the drama has reached the point of conflict and the recipient has two choices: opt out of the drama by excluding the audience or go all in and escalate to the next level of conflict. A recipient who chooses to escalate can usually add more flavor to the drama by inviting more people to join the audience.
The audience didn't sign up for this
The audience is the group that didn't initially sign up for the conversation. They wonder why they have been dragged into an email conversation that they don't want to be in. Since they didn't invite themselves, they don't get to opt out and many of them will resent the actors for dragging them in. Nevertheless, their presence is critical to the drama because it encourages the actors to take center stage and raise their voices loud enough to be heard.
Someone needs to end the drama
Since the audience is composed of unwilling participants, the responsibility for conflict resolution rests with the actors. Either the sender or primary recipient has to ask the question, "What is (or was) the point of this email communication?"
What is the reason for the email communication?
Until someone decides to take active steps to resolve the underlying issue, emails will continue to fly back and forth with increasing vehemence. Eventually, the drama will spiral out of control unless someone takes a step toward change to work toward a reasonable solution and end the conflict.
Resolve the conflict by exiting the drama
To resolve the conflict, one of the actors can decide to stop the drama by returning the conversation to a one-on-one conversation by picking up the phone. Or they can remove the audience from the conversation and get back to their original dialogue. Either strategy has the effect of calming tempers and helping the warring parties resolve any misunderstandings in private.
Drama is not all bad, if it's what you really want
Perhaps you want to invite some drama into your workplace. In that case, do continue to reply all and escalate to the point of maximum conflict. However, for those who prefer to communicate responsibly and take the drama (some of it) out of work, let's show some compassion for the (unwilling) audiencen and pause.
Decide: conversation, announcement, or drama?
Before you hit "Reply all," ask if you want to have a conversation, make an announcement, or participate in a drama. Whatever your answer, think carefully before you start your next email war.
This blog post is dedicated to a younger version of me, who hit "Reply all" once too many times. Here is to love, forgiveness, and email compassion.
What is your experience with email chains?