Before you hit send: emails and conflict escalation

Before you hit send: emails and conflict escalation

by Bryan Hanson

We have all done it, we read an email, interpreted ill intention, and fired off a defensive response that can turn a simple matter into a highly escalated conflict. I don’t believe anyone would disagree that email is a very difficult way to address conflicts, yet it is often an approach we will take. It feels safe, it seems simple, and it gives us an opportunity to express what we want to without being interrupted or receiving direct, face-to-face feedback that may make us feel uncomfortable.

So, what is the answer for ending the cycle of conflict that this scenario can create? Can we improve this method for engagement? What other actions can we take towards alleviating the conflict before escalates beyond a point that is necessary? I wish I had the perfect answer for all situations, but will use this short blog post to help people be more aware of how this situation can be transformed into an opportunity for better understanding, rather than extreme frustration.

First of all, we must acknowledge that the fast pace of our lives and the communication tools and channels we came to depend on are not necessarily always helping us when it comes to communicating our messages effectively. Our messages are condensed to fit our time frames and our character limits. This simple change in our messaging can leave a lot to be interpreted by the receiver. If the receiver has attributions developed by previous interactions or conversations with the sender or anyone else regarding the topic, the message can easily be misinterpreted and assumptions can add negative meanings that cause a sense of tension in the receiver.

An initial step to easing this tension is to become aware of the sensations the tension raises within you. If you feel the message you received is causing you to feel defensive, frustrated, or angry, it is time to reflect on what it is about the message that is doing this. Is there potential that you could be misinterpreting something within the message? Is there a need for clarity? Instead of shooting back an email or text, take the time to think about what is causing this tension within you, pick up the phone or walk down the hall, and speak to the person in an open and non-defensive manner.

This will allow you to pick up nuances unavailable via text-based communication, and will allow you to ask clarifying questions to ensure you understand the message correctly. I am not saying this will make the conflict go away, but it can at least help you engage in it in a more constructive manner.
It would be great to hear if others here on the ADRHub have come up with strategies they use themselves, or share with their clients to help stop the cycle of conflict created by the communication tools we use today. Feel free to leave your strategies or comments in the discussion forum below.



Bryan Hanson

Assistant Director

Bryan Hanson, the Assistant Director of the Werner Institute received his Master of Arts degree in Organizational Psychology from John F. Kennedy University, his graduate certificate in Organizational Conflict Management from John F. Kennedy University and his Bachelor of Science degree in Speech Communications from Minnesota State University - Mankato.

Bryan is a practicing mediator with well over a hundred hours of training in various mediation contexts. He is an approved Parenting Act mediator and Specialized ADR mediator by the state of Nebraska. Bryan provides many workshops regarding conflict engagement skill development for various organizational contexts. Bryan also is an experienced facilitator and has provided his services to assist organizations with visioning processes, the development of strategic plans, and other collaborative processes that necessitate the voice of multiple stakeholders.

Bryan serves as the President of the Board for the Nebraska Mediation Association ( and has since its creation in 2010. Bryan assisted with the development of and continues to manage the conflict resolution web resource He also contributes to the Creighton community with his involvement on the Distance Education Review Committee and by providing guest lectures regarding conflict engagement for a variety of programs. Prior to joining the Werner Institute, Bryan resided in the San Francisco Bay Area where he devoted his time to mediating, facilitating dialogue and providing training in conflict resolution.

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Comment by Noam Ebner on May 14, 2012 at 7:30am

Great thoughts, Bryan.

I particularly liked how you wrote: "Our messages are condensed to fit our time frames and our character limits." We need to remember that the other, reading the message, is not bound by the same constraints and their attibution dynamics doesn't take into account that we were. For example - recently I received long text messages from someone, and answered them with brief texts. After 2-3 exchanges, I got the feeling that they were getting annoyed at me, and I couldn't understand why they were going into such detail and repetition via text. then it dawned on me: They were texting on an easy-to-type-on smartphone, and I was slowly, painstakingly texting on my vintage dumbphone (which I'm never giving up). Their messages seemed to me to be more suitable for email, and my messages probably seemed to them to be as curt as telegrams. That was a laugh out loud moment for me. I immediately sent them a message by passenger pigeon, explaining everything.

If anybody wants to check out some writing on email communication and negotiation,I've put some papers up here: (click 'download this paper', and then 'open', to see full versions).


Comment by Bryan Hanson on May 14, 2012 at 3:46pm

Excellent point Noam, I find this to be an issue I recently discovered as well. I just jumped into the smart phone realm and find replying to emails a breeze with the new tool. I do not have the capacity to finger pick a very thoughtful message to each message though as I do from my laptop or desktop. It made me think about the impression I am giving the sender. I now consider the necessity to respond quickly, or thoughtfully when I read my emails on my smart phone and if the need is thoughtfully I save it until I have an opportunity to send it from my desk.

Did you attach the papers you mentioned? I do not see them, but would love to look them over. Thanks!

Comment by Noam Ebner on May 14, 2012 at 5:22pm
Comment by Bryan Hanson on May 14, 2012 at 5:38pm

A great treasure chest of resources, thanks Noam!


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