Ah, email, the necessary evil. From hundreds of unread emails to triggering interpersonal flare-ups, we’ve all felt the pain. Email is a double-edged sword — we all have to engage with it as a convenient communication channel for getting things done, but the devil is in the details! Specifically, the details of how we communicate with others via email — how we treat them on all levels; from the most basic (don’t be rude) to the most subtle and difficult (own your feelings).
This is challenging terrain for all of us because we don’t learn communication techniques in school or even in advanced education. Why would we, when talking is as common as breathing? Yet, generative, responsible communication skills are not easy to acquire.
However, it is worth investing in learning how to become more aware and knowledgeable about how our communication can hinder and even harm those we love and need, despite our best intentions. We should strive to learn new habits and techniques to create connection. And because we all have so much of it, we need to do so with efficiency.
There are six solid things you can do to increase your email communication effectiveness and decrease trouble. These make up our top do’s and don’ts when it comes to good email etiquette.
One: Strive For Clarity
Clarity is one of those things that’s both obvious and, at the same time, very difficult to achieve. Communicating our needs to another can bring up thoughts and feelings in us — like being unsure, doubting, or feeling afraid — that leads to mitigated and confusing communication, often without us knowing we are being so unclear. Moreover, it takes practice to gather the courage and say what you need to say, or ask what you need to ask. Here’s how you can achieve greater clarity:
List out your points or questions in a structured way by using these tactics:
- Create bullet points for the points you are trying to make
- Space out your paragraphs
- Bold the questions you need responses to or action steps you are asking your recipient to take
These simple ideas will make the email much easier to read, or to skim through (as most people do) and pick up the salient points. People typically don’t read through emails carefully or thoroughly, so consequently, they will concentrate on answering only one of your questions — and while doing so they may not even answer that accurately. If you can, ask only one question at a time, per email. Bold it, underline it,
Put it in its own paragraph.
Make sure it’s not buried within a paragraph and hard to see.
Two: Watch Your Tone
In email, the tone of your communication will be cold by default. Don’t assume that there is no tone; there definitely is. Make some effort to warm up your tone, because warmth of tone is a prerequisite to being really heard by the other. By warmth we mean a soul warmth: warmth of interest, warmth of enthusiasm, warmth of your complete attention and presence, or warmth of politeness and respect. Warmth is a quality that must be present if you want the other to hear you. If you speak coldly, you are less likely to be heard for what you actually said, but your tone will surely be heard with great accuracy.
Three: Formalize Your Letter
In Magenta we have a practice of formalizing our tone in email by starting our emails with: Dear _________, and ending with: Warmly, ____________.
Formalizing your letter is old-fashioned it is true, but by taking the time to be polite and formal you are showing your recipient respect and consideration. We think this kind of touch goes a long way toward warming up and nurturing that invisible space of relationship between you and your customers, your clients, your co-workers, everyone you email — and it’s so easy to do! It acknowledges the human being on the other end of your communication.
We sometimes get one-line emails that look like this:
“Rob is bringing a sample of something close in 15 min.”
No hello, sign off, no mention of who is sending the email. It took me several days to realize this person was referring to an inquiry about carpet samples I had made. I had forgotten about it, and this email did nothing to remind me. It doesn’t even make grammatical sense! We find this approach, while quick and convenient, comes across as careless, uncaring, and even unprofessional.
And please, check your spelling. Spelling mistakes indicate carelessness. We’re all human and make mistakes, but just take a small moment to check before sending. Besides, with convenient widgets like Grammarly that work across most applications, you have no excuse for bad spelling anymore 🙂
Four: Be Specific. You Can Always Be More Specific
There is an art to specificity, and it’s hard to do well and consistently. Where it shows up as most challenging is when you make a request, or ask, of another. If you are making a request, try to follow these guidelines:
- Don’t be vague; say exactly what you want. This is not easy to do, we acknowledge, but practice makes perfect. So get started on practicing today.
- Include in your request a timeframe that is clear. If you do so and they say yes, everyone knows exactly what is being agreed. And make it a near time frame, not distant. The more distant the timing is the harder it will be for them to agree to it.
- Put your request in terms of what you want them to do, not what you don’t want them to do. If you do nothing else, do this. No one can guess what you want if all you tell them is what you don’t want.
- If you are describing something that has happened, make sure you describe things as factually as possible. Take out assessments, judgments, and emotional conclusions from it. This way you avoid setting up a situation where there is some dispute about the facts before you’ve even had a chance to make your request.
- If you’re stuck, try using this formula: “Would you be willing to … (make it specific, within a clear timeframe, and ask for what you actually want, not what you don’t want)?”
Five: Don’t Try to Solve Strong Emotional or Conflict Issues Via Email
Emailing is bad for resolving emotional issues. There is just too much room for misunderstandings, given how poorly people read through emails, and how hard it is to articulate yourself all in one go. If you have to work through some tricky terrain, get on the phone instead or better yet, meet in person. Take the time to resolve things before they get out of hand. To resolve it via email takes skill, and if you’ve never invested in learning how it’s done, you risk making it worse.
If you must respond to an incendiary email, craft your response to make sure you remove all emotional, inflammatory, accusatory, implicatory, sarcastic, blaming, shaming, or otherwise finger pointing language, either explicit or implicit. Stick to the facts and respond (not react) with clarity and specificity. Do everything you can to warm the tone of your email, and respond with kindness and concern. You may require several attempts before you manage to cleanse it of all emotionally charged elements, and if you can, sleep on it and send it the following day. A night’s sleep often allows you to come back to it with a calmer perspective.
We swear by this approach because the fundamental gesture here is to “take the higher road,” which can efficiently de-escalate a situation that could otherwise get out of control or create drama you really don’t need.
Six: Emailing is Good for Something Though
When possible, limit your email to logistics, asking for clarity, and confirming agreements. Email is great for following up on meetings with a synopsis or summary of agreements and decisions made. This way, people have a chance to see how you understood what was agreed, and they can speak up if their understanding differed. It offers a way to track such communication in a formal way, if you aren’t yet using an app for that purpose.
This is important to be diligent around; what you heard, and what others heard can and often is, wildly different. It always pays to check what everyone heard and understood before laying down any agreements in stone.
Remember: if it’s tricky, consider resolving it elsewhere. Don’t be tempted to engage in disputes via email if it can possibly be avoided. If you use email to bring up a difficult subject, you can say something like: “I would rather not try to resolve this issue via email; would you be willing to get together in person so we can work this out? May I suggest next week Tuesday at 1PM?”
We hope you can see that email, while a challenging and limited communication channel, can nevertheless provide many opportunities for relationship-building when you consistently show up as a kind, respectful person. As an added bonus, it naturally follows that you will find yourself on the receiving end of the well-earned trust and respect of your peers.