Fanning the Flames: Emotional Intelligence Online

It seems like you’re always ‘online’ but are you always ‘in-line?’

Text and emails sent at work can be “mis-read,” causing undo tension between coworkers.

Say you’re charging along on a team project when an email string suddenly gets heavy. A ‘sarcastic’ comment about someone’s ‘contribution’ was taken at face value. Next thing you know, you’re looking at an email string full of ALL CAPS, bold words and sentences highlighted in red. You get the distinct feeling there’s an undercurrent of bcc’s to managers in every direction. And no one is looking good.

These are all key signals, according to author Daniel Goleman, that you’re losing your head when it comes your “online” Emotional intelligence – and that you’re moving quickly from courteous online communication to what techies call, Flaming.

In his post, Can we be Emotionally Intelligent Online?, Goleman describes how ‘flames’ – insults, off colour comments, ranting, finger pointing – can turn perfectly legitimate work discussions into ugly throw-someone-under-the-bus fiascoes. A tendency that can be even worse when voices are emboldened by a group setting, online forums or group email discussions, as opposed to the nakedness of in-person situations.

“The problem with communicating on the web,” says Goleman, is that “from [his] point of view is it has no channel for the social brain to attend to. Aside from perhaps video chat, you have no emotional signal in real time.”

That’s because during conversation, your “social brain” is actively (invisibly, constantly, sub-consciously) reading body language, tone, hand gestures and eye contact in order to understand what’s really happening, making face-to-face the most effective (and natural) form of communication. The main problem with e-interactions, says Goleman, is that you lose all that valuable data your brain needs to accurately ‘read’ a situation. Is your co-worker being aggressive, condescending or accusatory?  Or were they just being sarcastic? Online, it can be pretty hard to tell.

That’s when virtual ‘work’ exchanges can really heat up, sometimes fanning off-hand “flames” into five-alarm office fires: everything from hurt feelings and dysfunctional teams to stress leaves, resignations and even getting fired.

If the bulk of your work communications happen over the virtual network (text, email, group forums, intranets, etc.), then you might want to consider Goleman’s advice. He suggests taking a “brief pause” before adding your two-cents:

Simply take a few seconds to reflect on your intention and message. Is it clear? Will the tone be misinterpreted? That brief pause can save you a lot of backpedaling and hassle for an intentionally (or unintentionally) snarky comment.

What do you think? Do you make it a priority to regularly take your work relationships off-line? When tensions heat up do you reach for the phone or the send button? What do you think this discussion adds to the Yahoo-fuelled debate around teleworking vs. in-office requirements? Tell us in the comments below!