How to fix things when an email chain spirals out of control

Emails, Slack messages, and other forms of business communication can go wildly wrong when someone says something that could be misconstrued and you’ve entered into a certifiable misunderstanding.

Here’s how to put out the fire — and what to do instead.

Talk it out in these ways

David Maxfield, an author, speaker, social scientist, and Vice President of Research at VitalSmarts, writes in the Harvard Business Review that you should meet face-to-face.

“An in-person meeting is the gold standard,” he writes. “Seeing each other’s faces while you talk is far more important than people realize. It helps you understand what others are thinking and feeling, as well as what they are saying. If that’s not possible, then use a video conferencing app.”

The publication also recommends simply calling the person. This could be helpful if you don’t work in the same office space or have never met before.

Better luck next time — try this instead

Here’s how both parties can (hopefully) avoid misunderstandings in the future.

Don’t send anything that could be misinterpreted

This goes for emojis, GIFs, and words.

Yes, they’re a fun way to express yourself in the moment, but you’ll want to make sure you don’t send anything that could be deemed offensive to someone else now or in a future context.

Also keep in mind that your “private” office messages aren’t really private.

If you’re having reservations about something, you might not want to send it at all. Save yourself the trouble.

Be clear from the beginning

Avoid potential pitfalls by not beating around the bush.

You could also consider emphasizing that you’re open to questions if your words or data are unclear, so that the recipient feels more comfortable reaching out if they don’t understand something.

Being up front from the beginning might save time – the other person may not be as likely to hesitate to contact you.

Don’t be afraid to clarify

Better safe than sorry, right? This works for both the sender and the recipient.

Karen Lachtanski, Director of Global PR and Media Relations at Y Soft, writes in Entrepreneur about how asking questions can help you figure out someone’s tone over email.

“No matter how clear your counterpart in the conversation strives to be, sometimes confusion ensues,” she writes. “When you’re really stumped and don’t want things to become more tangled, it’s perfectly fine to come right out and ask, ‘Sorry, I think we may have misunderstood each other. Did I say something that offended you?’ or ‘Sorry, I think my message may have been confusing. What I meant was….”

Hopefully, such clarity up front will save you time when misunderstandings are avoided.