Have you ever sent an e-mail that was misinterpreted by the recipient?

Have you ever sent an e-mail that was misinterpreted by the recipient? If so, you may have already bumped into the reason why negotiating by e-mail is a bad idea.

The next time you’re tempted to negotiate by using e-mail rather than driving to your client’s house to see him/her in person–don’t! A new study shows that there is a 50-50 chance that the person who receives your e-mail will misunderstand the tone.

Few people realize that spoken language is a combination of both the words and the tone. Words reside in the “dominant” hemisphere of the brain. Tone resides in the “inferior” hemisphere that controls the tone or emotional sound of speech (to determine which side of your brain is the dominant hemisphere, notice how you hold your pen when you write. If you are right-handed and the top of your pen points to your body or if you are left-handed and you “hook,” you are left-brain dominate for language. If you are left-handed and hold the pen like someone who is right-handed or if you are right-handed and you “hook” like a lefty, you are right-brain dominate for language).

Regardless of which side is dominant, spoken speech requires both sides of the brain for communication to be effective. The dominant hemisphere has words but lacks inflection, tone, and feeling. Without input from the “inferior” cerebral hemisphere, speech patterns sound robotic. This is the challenge with e-mail. When you write an e-mail, you hear all the inflection, shifts in tone, and feeling in your head. In contrast, your recipient only has the words on the page. This is the seed that can grow into a major misunderstanding.

Nicholas Epley and Justin Kruger (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2005) conducted a study that demonstrates the perils of communicating via e-mail. Prior to participating in the study, subjects were asked how accurately they interpreted the tone in the e-mails they receive. The subjects’ response was that they were accurate 90 percent of the time. Subjects were then divided into pairs. The researchers asked them interpret a series of e-mails sent by their partners to determine whether the e-mail was “serious” or “sarcastic.” They were also asked to indicate how confident they were in their answers. The subjects predicted that their partners would be accurate 80 percent of the time. Instead, the results were 50-50, meaning they were just as likely to predict the results by flipping a coin. In terms of negotiating, what this means is that you have a 50-50 chance that what you say may be misunderstood. Furthermore, Epley and Kruger attribute this to “egocentrism.” They use this term in the Piagetian sense, i.e. the inability to understand a viewpoint different from your own. This egocentrism results from our overconfidence that others perceive our communication the way in which we sent it.

Negotiation is often a volatile process. Granted that e-mail allows you to take the emotion out of your communication, but it is this lack of emotion that also creates miscommunication. For example, if the seller asks, “Are these well-qualified buyers?” and your response is, “They’re qualified all right.” A difference in tone (serious) means they are well qualified. A sarcastic tone would indicate they’re not qualified at all. Our inability to perceive what we send from the other person’s perspective can be the basis for serious misunderstandings.

E-mail creates other challenges besides tone and egocentrism. Have you ever meant to respond to just one recipient on a group e-mail and you hit the “Reply all” by mistake, and your private communication went to everyone on the list? Or have you ever sent a private e-mail that someone decided to forward to someone else? As rule of thumb, never put anything into an e-mail that you do not want others to see.

Another important point to remember about any e-mail communication is that it leaves a digital trail. An e-mail where you “flame” another agent or one of your clients, rests not only on your hard drive, but on the recipient’s drive as well. Even when you delete the e-mails, the data you sent can still be recovered. This is especially true when you use your company’s computer system and it has a back-up system. If you end up in court, the opposing counsel can resurrect all your written communications. Furthermore, because they only have your words, they are free to misinterpret the tone of what you said.

The bottom line when it comes to e-mail negotiation is that it is fraught with potential problems. Your recipients have a 50-50 chance of misunderstanding what you meant, your private communication may go somewhere you wished it would not, and your digital trail can lead to serious damages if you are sued. Instead of “Buyer beware” a more accurate statement may be “E-mailer beware.”

Bernice Ross, co-owner of Realestatecoach.com, has written a new book, “Waging War on Real Estate’s Discounters,” available online. She can be reached at bernice@realestatecoach.com.

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