Think about the last time you read an email and thought to yourself “This guy’s a jerk.” Were you inclined to give credibility to their ideas? Did you fully consider their points with an open mind, or did the perception that this was not a good person affect your perception of their email? Did you want to support the opinions of the sender, or try out a similar idea in your game- or did you feel less like doing what the sender suggested because you saw him or her as a jerk?
It’s human to take into account what a person is like when we communicate with him or her. It’s easier to “hear” what an email sounds like if you know the sender well. An email or forum post that might sound callous, mean, or sarcastic to a stranger may sound funny to a close friend. We often write or speak with the “funny” in mind, but the reader or listener instead gets the “sarcastic” or “mean” impression. That hurts both the people involved, and the message. The message gets discarded, the receiver loses out on a potential friend by thinking someone is a jerk who may not be, and the sender loses credibility, and a new potential friend in the reader.
It would be great if we could all know each other well enough to read an email or hear a comment and understand the sender’s intent. Non-game activities, like socials and cooperation on a charity, are great for developing that understanding. But for members on opposite sides of the country, chances to become that close are few and far between. Since that’s the case, it’s smart to write your emails or phrase your communication in a way that accurately conveys your ideas- and doesn’t make you look like a jerk. While this is still true in person or over the phone, it’s especially true over electronic communication, where there are no vocal cues or body language to help convey what you really mean. So, any member—but especially an officer—can benefit from communicating in a professional, friendly way.
But how can we do that? Try a new approach, abbreviated with the acronym “NOT TRITE.”
- No enemies here. Assume that we, as members and especially as officers, are friends working together to create the best possible story for everyone. The idea that we’re not enemies, but friends, should be firmly in mind before reading or responding. This helps give the sender the benefit of the doubt, so that something that could read as mean or funny is taken as funny (or at least a try at being funny instead of deliberately mean). We all have bad days, and a positive attitude in your response can change a dispute into a conversation.
- Options and common ground. It’s rare that there’s only one “right” way to do something, so offering options helps us find agreement. Think about positive parts of an email you’re preparing, either to start or respond to a conversation. If you include positive comments about related ideas, that helps generate a positive feeling for the conversation, and helps it to be more productive. Don’t ignore problems, but focus on the positive when practical, giving others as much chance to find common ground with you as possible.
- Team attitude. Focus on cooperative action to fix the problem, not the blame. It’s not very useful, professional, or friendly to focus on who screwed up. One technique is to work towards something like “Okay, this happened. We need to try to fix this problem, cooperating with each other, and then work out a way to keep it from happening again.” The team attitude also helps take criticism constructively, by treating the sender as a teammate who’s trying to help us improve rather than a jerk who’s trying to embarrass, insult, or humiliate us. Finally, the team attitude helps us focus on behavior rather than personality. If you disagreed with something, focus on that thing, rather than on the sender. It’s more effective, as well as more tactful, to say “I disagreed with this decision.” than “You suck as an officer.” The first keeps the focus on the problem, while the second focuses on the person- and makes them feel defensive, which hurts other communication.
- Trolls. Don’t feed them. If the apparent goal of a post or email or comment is to make you angry or upset, don’t let the troll win. Stay calm, and ignore the things that don’t merit a response. Answer the substance of the email if necessary, but do it calmly.
- Read (or listen) carefully. Before you respond, be sure what you’re responding to- avoid reacting to a misunderstanding. Try restating the sender’s points, such as “I read your email to say…. Did I understand that right?” The phrase “Bob is out to get Sue” could mean that Bob is angry with Sue… or that he’s gone to pick her up at the airport. Asking which before responding helps prevent miscommunication that could create a problem.
- The “I” Test. Consider what the message meant to you. What are the facts of the message? How did it make you feel? Keeping those separate can help you respond more constructively. You can use phrases that begin with “I” rather than “You.” For example, it’s smart to avoid phrases that come across as attacks, such as “You always…” or “You never…” Phrasing things like “I feel….” changes the effect, framing what you’re saying as something you perceive, not the truth, and not an accusation. If someone feels attacked and becomes defensive, it hurts communication and often makes the receiver feel that the sender is a jerk. You can also employ the mirror of this technique, asking yourself what you want the receiver to know, what you want them to feel, and what you want them to do. Then ensure that your message cover those three things clearly, kindly, and calmly.
- Time. Take the time to read what you’re about to send. If you’re angry enough to be “typing with your middle fingers,” then save the draft, but don’t send it. Come back to it when you’re calm and revise to keep the key points, but present them in a calm way. Take the time to communicate calmly and effectively. This will get easier with practice. Remember when you first started driving, when it was an effort to check your mirrors, keep your speed, know what was around you, and so on? After practice, you learned to do those things automatically. Communicating effectively is much the same- it gets easier with practice.
- Emulate. Look for posts or comments that are smart and professional, and think about what makes them that way. You can even create a file or label for such emails or posts and review them for ideas before you post. This isn’t limited to just club members, or even to email. A variation on this principle is “What would (someone you respect) do?” Write as if you were drafting a letter for that person you respect to send, and use that as your first draft.
Taken together, these tips can help you communicate effectively, tactfully, and professionally with not only other officers and club members, but in your workplace and your home. While the examples focused on email, then same concepts can be readily applied to conversations in person, in chat or over the phone. To demonstrate, let’s consider two examples.
Situation: Paul Player has just sent an email to a list accusing Sam Officer of unethical behavior, particularly giving approvals and plot benefits to friends. How can Sam respond, with the above ideas in mind?
No enemies: Paul must be pretty frustrated to write an email like that and to send it to a list. Paul must think that direct email wouldn’t fix things. Sam resists the temptation to defend his actions and counterattack. Instead, he considers options and common ground. Are there standards that Sam is using to evaluate apps that Paul isn’t aware of? Are some players putting in lots of efforts get plot benefits or prestige, while others aren’t? Sam chooses to take the Team attitude, and read Paul’s email as an attempt to get greater transparency for how prestige or plot benefits are handed out, and maybe improve that process. Sam describes the process he’s using, and offers some possible other ways to do things that the players might prefer, as well as asking for other ideas on how to handle approvals and plot benefits better.
This assumes that Paul is not a Troll who’s just trying to get under Sam’s skin. If Paul has a history of trying to create drama unnecessarily, then Paul’s response may need to be more concise- every extra word is ammunition to a troll. Assuming that Paul is not a troll, Sam starts by asking some questions for clarification, restating Paul’s comments, such as “Paul, what I’m getting from this is that you believe the way I’m choosing to award benefits is based on being my friend, rather than on an objective effort or story-based criteria. Is that right?”
While Sam waits for Paul to confirm or clarify, Sam drafts a more complete response. He considers the “I” test. Sam’s reply then includes that he was hurt by Paul’s comments, and asks Paul to rephrase in the future- perhaps even suggesting the NOT TRITE method. He continues to say “We clearly have a problem here that some players see favoritism. How can we fix that perception?” Sam might even say “Y’know, I do talk with some people more than others. Maybe that has made their submissions or approvals make more sense to me, so I asked them fewer questions in the DB or on their prestige reviews, or better understood why their submissions made sense. How can I get to know the other characters/members better so that I can see the benefit of approvals for them as clearly?”
Even after putting that together, Sam gives it some Time between drafting and sending, since he has felt hurt by Paul’s comments, and wants to be sure that his reply is positive, and calm rather than angry, hurt, or upset. When Sam comes back to his draft after cooling off, he re-reads it with an eye towards Emulating someone he respects- a mentor, a teacher, a spiritual guide, a parent- anyone that Sam looks up to as a model of positive, tactful communication can fit the bill. Would the Sam’s model say things this way? Once Sam is satisfied that his model would approve of his message, he’s ready to send. This may take a couple of days at first, but soon, with practice, it can happen in under an hour.
With a little practice, you can be a more effective communicator, improving your life is the club and outside it.