Uses of Email
From: Sharon Villines (
Date: Mon, 10 Jul 2000 12:45:54 -0600 (MDT)
We've had the email discussion before and you all know I live and breath on
email so I'll skip that part and go right the center of the question which
was trying to "do business" on email. Having team meetings and discussions,
reaching consensus, etc.

This is a  long message but stick with me because I'm just trying to set up
the assumptions on which the discussion is based. When it comes to email, I
find no one is working from the same assumptions yet.

Productive discussions on email require the same elements that produce
productive discussions in any other forum.

If you meet face to face, all members need to communicate in the same
language, be able to hear or read lips, speak or write, be able to get to
the place where the meeting is held at the time it is held, be physically
presentable (not too smelly, usually not naked), able to sit still for long
periods of time, and refrain from being abusive or condescending in behavior
toward those with whom they disagree.

The same is true of communications via email, telephone, physical contact
(sex), and letters.

Large groups (or complex forums like conference calls) benefit from good
facilitation (formerly known as leadership). The better the facilitation,
the better the communication. The better the communication, the more
productive the "meeting."

The advantage of email over other forums for communication and decision
making is that email is neither time nor place limited.

It does require that everyone have access to an email account that is
functional (just as  meeting rooms have to be reasonably comfortable as well
as available).

The one thing that has not been worked out on email is the issue of
facilitation. eGroups has a structure in which the person who sets up the
list has full control over the parameters of the list including
unsubscribing members, blocking membership, and approving or censoring
messages. This is not what I am talking about.

You can also establish all sorts of rules and mail them to the whole list
every month (or week) but this is also demeaning, restrictive, and

I am currently working with two principles:

1) I do all the facilitation of "my" lists off-list, with only gentle
reminders that affect everyone on list (please remember to "trim quotes" for
those receiving digests).

I "listen" to all the discussion and contact members privately about ways to
improve their postings. How to make them clearer, how to include enough
information for others to respond well so they are not ignored, how to say
what they mean without offending others, etc.

The only "rule" I try to remind people of (and I do it privately) is not to
characterize other people's statements. You can ask questions or state your
own positions or opinions, but not attribute motivations or intentions to

I ask all the questions a facilitator would ask in a meeting, off-list if
they are directed to a specific member, and on-list if they involved the
whole flow of discussion. I summarize where we are when things get very busy
or it appears that we are reaching a position or a conclusion.

If I step in on-list, it usually stops the discussion and the issue remains
unresolved. I've noticed the same thing on other lists. Eventually, the
unhappy listers go form another list fragmenting the group. (One list that I
loved is now 5 and the fun is gone. It's too complicated to participate in
all five and participation is seen as taking sides anyway.)

2) I pay more attention to reactions to posts than to original posts, trying
to bring the reactors back to the point rather than trying to "stop" or
control the original poster -- who usually meant no harm anyway. Reactions
cause much more off-topic and unproductive discussion than any direct

I deal with reactors off list. I assure other listers who alert me off-list
that I am dealing with it, stay cool.

These two principles seem to work. Just like meetings, email discussions,
particularly ones intended to reach agreements, need facilitation.

I recently successfully negotiated a flame war that involved charges of
racism, sexism, stupidity, and un-American activities. (Just classifying the
flames as "racist" cleans up the discussion considerably.)

I knew none of the posters personally and it was "my" list, one I wanted
very much to succeed. I worked through it with the loss of only one member
(who resigned) and gained about 20 new members (10% increase in one day).
The new members have stayed.

The member who resigned was never censured publicly or privately, he just
got the message that his accusation against others were not going to get the
reactions he desired. I also discovered that he had signed onto the list
using two addresses so he could watch the chaos that he expected to continue
after I unsubscribed him (as he expected) or so he could read my reaction on
the list after he unsubscribed. When there was no reaction, he unsubscribed
from both addresses.

I once said to someone "It only takes one to start trouble" and I was
corrected by my much older and wiser companion, "No, it takes two. One to
think of it and one to egg him on. Without the egger, things don't get very

Sorry this is so  long but email is a very important new medium of
communication that is not only liberating but as all liberations are, much
feared and much maligned. I resisted for years. Refused, actually, to even
have a modem because I knew it was a monster waiting to eat me alive.

Sharon Villines, Editor
The MacGuffin Guide to Detective Fiction
Takoma Village Cohousing, Washington, DC

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