My family was an early adopter of email, and I have had some sort of account for 25 years. Still, I loath digital communication because it is hard to know someone's actual tone. I often respond to emails and even (gasp) texts with phone calls when the situation calls for tact. I was recently on an email chain that was a potential minefield for hurt feelings. In my old professional life, my actions had the potential to mend broken families or rip them apart. This was a personal matter and quite trivial, however, it could have caused lasting hurt.
Our PTO vice president contacted me with a new volunteer for my teacher appreciation committee (we arrange conference meals, a holiday celebration, teacher appreciation week, and a Spring luncheon). It is normal to get new helpers at the beginning of the year. What was unique was that this woman was new to our school and had lots of suggestions from her old school "beyond just conference meals" (great), but also was ready to take charge immediately (whah?). I hoped to train someone to fill my role next year. While I was jumping at the chance for help and a potential replacement, my ego felt bruised. Even worse, the PTO vice president hadn't seemed to clarify that we already do many of this mom's suggestions. I know that it was silly, but I felt vulnerable and defensive. The new mom ended up emailing me that very night, again asking if we could possibly find it in our budget to do more than "just conference meals" and saying that she would head it up.
I knew I had to respond via email, and that I did not want to alienate her. I legitimately want her to replace me. I do want her to bring new ideas and energy. I also felt I had something to prove-- I was ready to fire off a quasi-nasty email. Then I pondered: why was I so offended by something so mundane? Why was she so eager to take on a role that was already filled? Why did she assume we didn't "do more" without first ascertaining what we actually do? Why had The PTO rep not "defended" us?
I realized that I was hurt, plain and simple, that our hard work from the previous year was not being recognized. I realized she was new to our school and trying to meet people and help out. So there it was:I was hurt; she was looking for connection and to feel useful. The last thing either of us needed was a petty and pithy email exchange. On a more practical level, I realized we had never publicized our work as only the teachers had seen the product. The only thing we had asked for help with was baking for conference meals. Perhaps it was fair for her to assume that was all we did, after all. Maybe this was an actual opportunity to educate the new volunteer, bringing the PTO up to speed, and get some new blood on board.
I drafted an email with good restraint, beginning, "My co-chair A and I would love to have you on board with us as we plan! We welcome new ideas and are always striving to do better and more, so it is great to have another perspective. In particular we would love to have someone who would carry on after we are finished (I plan to roll off after this year, though I cannot speak for A, who still has younger kids). It sounds like you would be a great person to start with us this year and continue in the role!....." So nice, right?!!
I then proceeded to go into my "however" and listed everything we did the previous year. While I did qualify it with an apology for he lengthy amount of information and say that it was "just to get us all on the same page,"
I probably went off the rails a a bit. I went into painful detail with pictures to show all we had done. Was it too much chest-beating and bragging? In hindsight, probably a smidgen. By that point I had realized this, I had already hit send. All that was left was to pray she would see simply my good intentions.You know what? She received the right message! The internet worked, y'all!!!! Her response was "All this stuff is amazing!!! I had no idea you and A coordinated all of this last year. I would love to be a part of your team and am looking forward to working with you. I'd love to see all of the things you and your team do publicized too. Is it possible to get a PTO corner in the weekly updates to highlight what the PTO is doing even when help isn't being requested? I'm sure some of the other teams are doing stuff behind the scenes too. Thanks so much for filling me in." She is going to be our chair in training and I will pass it off to her next year!
In my mind, she is awesome for both reaching out in the first place and recognizing that she spoke without all the information. It could have gone another way. I could have handed my post over to her in a blaze of glory or I could have marked my territory so clearly that she didn't engage at all. It sounds ridiculous, but things like that happen on PTO's all the time. Things like that happen on all email all the time. I am so glad that I stopped for a minute to think about why she made the request and why it bothered me. I am glad that she stopped and thought about how to respond in a way that was kind. By slowing down and listening, really listening to he meaning of what the other was saying, we communicated so effectively. This is one time where I wish real life communication would be more like email.