Email – Stop Reacting and Start Responding!

A typical annual review question you might come across is, “what will you stop doing, and what will you start doing in the new year?”
One of the things I have been trying to do for a few years now is to stop reacting! Instead, start responding. Big difference. And believe it or not, it is not easy to do, especially regarding email.
Bringing a little time and thought into your email communication can make a big difference. There are no guarantees, but if your goal is to be perceived as a thoughtful, consistent, and trusted business partner, the odds of giving that impression go way up if you resist the innate urge to react merely. Instead, respond with thought.

Reactions Serve a Purpose

Reactions serve an essential evolutionary purpose, to sense danger and threats. Once the risk is assessed, they trigger us to get out of there! Fight or flight. Survival.
According to Alexander Todorov, reactions begin forming at the first 1/10th of a second of an encounter. The Princeton professor highlights that these immediate reactions are not such a good thing as they “…pervade everyday life and often have detrimental consequences.” Other factors, such as reputation and context that require greater cognition should be weighted more heavily than the instinctual reaction. “They are more accurate,” Todorov says.

Regretted Reactions

Add to this hair-triggered biology is the 24/7/365 uptime expectation. Many must reply immediately, including after work hours, weekends, and on holidays. This ethic of the quick reply, noble as it is, can be a recipe for some innocent (and well-intentioned) trouble.
I suspect we can all think of a few examples of reactions we’ve given that we later regretted.

  • The quick email didn’t address the question and was full of typos.
  • The incomplete answer raised more questions it answered. They were creating more problems.
  • The sarcastic or inappropriate retort you thought was “funny” instead came across as mean or unprofessional.
  • Hitting “reply all” when you meant to send it to one person.
  • Or, my personal favorite, the complete misread of a situation because of an unexpected emotional element in the exchange.

Those are all mistakes I’ve made in my career. While I survived them all, I would prefer to have never done them in the first place. Part of the issue here is not feeling rushed in providing a reply.

Three Rules of Responding

I have come up with three rules I follow in my email communication that help me craft a more thoughtful “response” and not a fast reaction.

  • Acknowledge, clarify, and set expectations. This is a quick reply.
  • Leverage other sets of eyes.
  • Respond fully with values while adding value.

Acknowledge, Clarify, and Set Expectations

The first thing I do when I receive an email with a request or ask is to let the person know I received it. If it’s important enough for them to send it to me during off hours, or anytime at all, frankly, it is professional to let them know I’m working on their request and to set the expectation of when they can get a full reply.
It would be helpful if every email had some form of the line, “this is important, and we need a full answer for our Tuesday meeting!” But that’s not how emails roll. So, it is critical that, along with an acknowledgment of receipt, I also clarify what they are looking for and by when. I often started an internal fire drill that was completely unnecessary because I confused urgent and immediate. Worse, I thought they needed a whole Powerpoint when all they needed was a piece of data.
Take the time to clarify the time frame, confirm needed deliverables, then deliver exactly what they asked for!

Leverage Other Sets of Eyes

If you work with other smart people, ask them for help with your communications. Ask, “do you have a couple of minutes to look at an email?” Most folks are glad to help. I learned in grad school that another set of eyes never hurts a piece of writing.
There are three pieces of feedback you are looking for:

  • Did you answer all the questions? Much business communication is less precise than we’d like it to be. Often, asks have embedded or implied items that can be missed. A second set of eyes on the inbound email can ensure you see all the questions.
  • Are your answers clear? Sometimes solutions make sense to you but not to someone else. Another set of eyes can help you be clear. While less is more in much of business communication, unclear is, well, vague. Be specific and clear.
  • Does your note convey the right tone? The tone is critical in a business email. It’s easy to express hurried irritation (or other emotions) and not know it. Don’t. Convey professionalism and eagerness to help.

A word of caution, choose your eyes carefully. You don’t want someone who wants to rewrite your emails. You want some quick feedback. The re-writers can work on their inner Tolstoy on their days off!

Respond with Values While Adding Value

In business, values matter. What values are driving your answers from both a personal and organizational standpoint? It never hurts to know what is causing a response. Calling out values can be a good branding exercise. Do it when you can.
When I worked at CEB, I had a manager who always asked me when I wanted her set of eyes to check, “what’s in the email specifically for the receiver? What value will they get from your reply? You want them to be excited about your emails because they always add value!”
Here’s an example of adding value. Often emails are forwarded to a team. Is your email clean and neatly organized with bullets, headings, and white space, providing an easily digestible response if shared? If it is, you’re adding value.
There are dozens of ways to add value to an email, but they all require thought and time in, in other words, a response.

One Last Thing…

Communication is hard. Plus, no one email is suitable for everyone because everyone has different preferences. It’s something to work at.
So, pause the next time you get an email and find yourself getting jacked up about it. Take a deep breath. Clam down. It’s going to be alright.
Then, don’t react. Take the time to respond. It will take time. Be thoughtful and professional. If you do, it can make a difference.
I hope you can use some of these ideas. Good luck!

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