Winning an Argument via eMail

An American proverb goes, “The more arguments you win, the fewer friends you have.” Well, possibly – but the fact remains that in business you are going to have arguments sometimes, and you are going to try to win them. However, as long as you stick to a few golden rules, you should be able to keep the process friendly.

Of course, resolving disagreements in writing is clearly not the ideal way to do it; it’s always better to talk face to face or pick up the phone. But in our increasingly interconnected world, much of our communication naturally happens in written form, via letters, emails and instant messaging. And when you’re trying to make a point in writing, without the clues of tone of voice, facial expressions and body language to help you, misunderstandings may occur. You therefore have to be extra careful about the words you choose and the way you phrase them.

Here are some tips to remember next time you find yourself indignantly sitting down to write an email:

1. Logic and reason win arguments. Most people are fairly reasonable, so if you can appeal to their sense of what’s right, you will probably win them over to your way of thinking. Stay professional at all times: remember, you’re trying to solve an issue, not taking this opportunity to express all the anger and frustration that has been building up inside you for ages. Even if you’re having a lot of problems with this person, concentrate on one issue. Don’t make personal accusations – you will simply anger and alienate your reader and you risk losing your focus, your temper and your argument. So stay logical, stick to the facts, explain your reasoning properly, and you will stand a better chance of getting what you want.

2. Keep it as simple as possible. In this sort of communication, it’s best to keep your writing simple, easy to follow and strictly to the point. Avoid descriptive or emotional language; comparisons and metaphors can easily cause further misunderstanding because they are very subjective and therefore inappropriate in this sort of communication. For example, if you say that this situation reminds you of another one that happened in the past, you risk being distracted from the current problem; the same will happen if you describe your correspondent, or their way of doing business, to something else unrelated. So try to stick to the point at hand and save your literary skills for another time.

3. Keep questions to a minimum. If you ask questions, you’re throwing the floodgates open for all sorts of new topics to arise. Your correspondent may use a question as a way to change the subject, and it will be difficult to return to the issue at hand. So only ask a question if you really need an answer, not just rhetorically to prove your point. At the same time, beware of allowing them to distract you by asking questions which are beside the point; you don’t have to answer questions, and you don’t have to justify yourself. Remember, if you want to win the argument, you have to keep the upper hand.

4. Stay in the form. If you’re writing an email, don’t write as though it’s a blog. The conventions are completely different. You may be angry – you may be furious – but the key is to stay firm but pleasant at all times. In an email exchange, you should always begin and end with a suitable salutation, just as you would in a letter, and check your grammar and spelling. The clearer and calmer your writing style, the more professional and convincing your entire communication will be.

5. Dealing with insults. There could come a moment when your correspondent actually insults you. Of course, they may have done it unintentionally – as we said, this can be a real problem in written communication – but let’s assume you are pretty sure it was intentional. What should you do? Generally speaking, you shouldn’t react to provocation in a business situation –  things will only get worse if you start exchanging insults – so either ignore the insult, or deal with it very quickly, simply denying the truth of whatever they said. So, for example, if they write “You are totally incompetent!” simply write back, “Your accusation of incompetence is clearly unjustified. I would ask you to look at the facts again and to continue this conversation at a later date.”

6. Finally, the diamond rule. If you write something when you’re angry, don’t send it off until you’ve had a chance to reread and edit it in a calmer frame of mind. If you think the tone might be too aggressive, ask a colleague to have a quick look. And one more tip: if several people are involved in the email exchange, think carefully before you press “Reply to all”! Do you really want to start arguments with all of them?

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