Communication: Lessons Learned From a State Department Aide

“Speak, she said, as you would write: as if your words were letters of lead, graven there for all time, for which you must take the consequences.” ― Dorothy Dunnett

There are plenty of articles, blogs, and comments surrounding the propriety of the chain of emails exchanged between reporter, Michael Hastings, and State Department aide Philippe Reines. While I have several opinions regarding the exchange, one detail stood out to me beyond the simple text.

Reviewing the date and time stamps on each message, the entire span of the exchange clocks in at slightly over three hours. More specifically, less than one hour elapsed before Mr. Reines replied to the initial email from Hastings.

One disadvantage of being continually connected is the ease with which we can issue a written reply “off the cuff”, without allowing time for a measured response. Especially when responding to sensitive issues, perceived attacks and slights, or personal comments, it requires a significant amount of self-control to refrain from instantly responding. Consider the following excerpt:

On Sun, Sep 23, 2012 at 12:45 PM, Reines, Philippe I wrote:

 Why do you bother to ask questions you’ve already decided you know the answers to?

From: Michael Hastings
Sent: Sunday, September 23, 2012 12:50 PM

To: Reines, Philippe I 
Cc: Nuland, Victoria J

 Subject: Re: Request for comment 

Why don’t you give answers that aren’t bull**** for a change?

On Sun, Sep 23, 2012 at 1:38 PM, Reines, Philippe I wrote:
I now understand why the official investigation by the Department of the Defense as reported by The Army Times The Washington Post concluded beyond a doubt that you’re an unmitigated a**hole.

Lesson One:

While the pause afforded to us via email could be used to craft a pithier insult, it may be more beneficial to use this time for reflection. Clearly the excerpt above has degenerated beyond these initial deliberations, but before responding at all, consider:

Does this communication need a response?

Am I the best person to respond to this?

Lesson Two:

Often, we do need to respond to messages that may initially elicit an emotional response. Though that first response may be emotional, however, does not mean that emotion needs to be evident in a written reply. If you must respond, consider:

Is my reply concise, addressing only the necessary topics?

What tone do I convey through my chosen adjectives?

Am I making “I” statements, or “you” statements?

Is my response unnecessarily defensive or combative?

Lesson Three:

A measured response is hard to craft “in the moment” – and an hour is not always long enough to clear your head. The best advice I have received:

Have a trusted, uninvolved party provide some perspective

Sleep on it

While a lot of these lessons seem like common sense, it is incredibly easy to get caught up in your emotions and respond without thinking. Keep in mind though: words of lead may be graven for all of time – words posted online are graven for all of time AND have a much broader audience.

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Ami Wazlawik

Definitely agree with many points made. I used to peruse blogs a lot more than I do now, and found myself wanting to fire off comments that were simply emotional reactions. I learned to type out what I REALLY want to say, wait a few minutes, delete the text, and write a much calmer, thoughtful response.

Jerry Schmidt

I, too, agree with the points made. This episode points out the issues that come from a 24/7 news cycle, a very volatlie story, and a degree of autonomy that was probably earned but maybe not deserved. The PIO of the State Department should have been looped in and the aide should have stepped away. It’s a shameful moment on both sides (I have worked in television and as a private communications specialist; I personally would have had a major league fit if someone in my purview had responded the way the aide did, and I’ve seen reporters get taken to the woodshed for making it personal) and hopefully more people learn from this than emulate it.

Dannielle Blumenthal

I am only speaking from personal opinion, but my sense is that the seeming outburst was calculated, and brilliant. There are communication goals that can be achieved through appearance of having taken genuine offense.