Does E-Mail Escalate Conflict?

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Millions of businesspeople worldwide rely on e-mail as a fundamental communication tool. Managers use it to organize meetings, coordinate virtual work teams, make announcements — and communicate about disputes. But according to the authors of a recent paper, using e-mail to resolve conflicts carries a major risk: that disputes will escalate to irresolvable levels and even damage senders' and receivers' relationships.

The paper is “E-Mail Escalation: Dispute Exacerbating Elements of Electronic Communication.” The authors are Raymond A. Friedman, an associate professor of management at Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management, and Steven C. Currall, the William and Stephanie Sick Professor of Entrepreneurship and an associate professor of management, psychology and statistics at Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Management.

Building on previous research, Friedman and Currall propose a new conceptual framework articulating the unique structural properties of e-mail communication and suggesting their impact on the escalation or resolution of conflict. On the basis of their review of sociological literature — such as H. Clark and S. Brennan's analysis of different communication media (“Grounding in Communication,” in L. Resnick, J. Levine and S. Teasley, eds., “Perspectives on Socially Shared Cognition,” Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1991, pp. 127–149) and J.Z. Rubin, D.G. Pruitt and S.H. Kim's exploration of conflict escalation (“Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement,” New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994) — the authors suggest that escalation of disputes is more likely during electronic communication than during face-to-face conversation. They also recommend a number of ways to ameliorate the risk of escalation, and they conclude with a call for additional empirical research into e-mail's impact on conflict management.

The paper begins with a review of the properties inherent to face-to-face conversation that e-mail lacks: copresence (parties are in the same surroundings), visibility (parties see one another), audibility (parties hear speech timing and intonation), cotemporality (parties receive utterances as they are produced), simultaneity (parties send and receive messages at once) and sequentiality (parties take turns). These properties enable communicators to “ground” the interaction — that is, to achieve a shared understanding about the encounter and a shared sense of participation. They also allow participants to time and adjust their actions and reactions so as to move toward agreement. Grounding, timing and adjusting are all critically important tools in successful conflict resolution.

The authors then contrast the properties of face-to-face communication with those of electronic communication.


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