We weren’t really mad at each other, but it sure seemed that way. While I was in law school, my future wife drove a few hundred miles to see me after a discussion over text where we both misread tone. I don’t recollect what we wrote to each other that created the pain. But I do recall how reading a message creates a much different impression than a face-to-face conversation. It showed me that I needed to learn how to write with clarity and empathy.
In the times before the pandemic, work colleagues shared information from across a conference room table. Every method of communicating is a replacement for that person-to-person communicating. In those talks, we had cues like eye contact, tone of voice, and body language. Now, most of our discussions happen in typed forms like text, chat, and email. The opportunity to misunderstand is rampant.
Our listening has been replaced by reading text on a screen. This leads to disagreements because science shows we understand less when we read words on a screen. Our brains skim and search for important takeaways. Then the problem is compounded. When it comes time for our reply, we respond quickly because we feel burdened by the number of emails in our inbox. So we send terse, confusing, and sloppy messages after not fully comprehending the first message.
Our reading skills are plummeting at work because we feel overwhelmed. This makes details easy to miss. But our busyness is often created by our own incorrect, unclear, disorganized communication. Don’t let speed or worry come at the expense of respect, clarity, or accuracy.
In our virtual lives, reading carefully is the new listening. And writing clearly is how we show compassion. So before you rattle off that next email, ask yourself these three questions.
- Is my email too short?
Before responding to that next email, slow down. Assume the best possible tone from the person that wrote you the email. Read slowly and deliberately. Don’t skim looking for the main points. Seek to understand what the author meant in an objective way.
When I first learned to ride a horse, I wanted to ride that pony fast. But an old cowboy told me that, “you must learn to go slow to go fast.” That idea applies to our work too. We live like there aren’t enough hours in the day. But if we perform each task carefully and calmly, we will get it done with less stress and quicker.
Reference details in your emails. For example, if someone sends a long email summarizing a phone call, take the time to respond to specific components of their email rather than an overall response. That shows you respect the other person’s time and thoughts.
“But we don’t have time to care, Hamilton! Feelings don’t matter, results do!” This idea ignores that human beings are awash in emotion. Your brief emails are likely causing a host of confusion that far outweighs the efficiency of using fewer words. By creating bad emotions with your coworkers, your results are suffering.
Terse emails are common as you ascend the organizational chart. I worked for a law firm where there was a running joke that you used fewer characters as your career progressed to equity partner. It started with “thank you so much!” as an associate. And then eventually progressed to two letters only, “ty,” when you were a partner.
The recipient of those brief messages spends time deciphering what you mean. That causes delays and costly mistakes which offset your perceived efficiency. For example, I wrote an email to a law partner asking, “Do you want to move forward with the brief as written or should we request more documents in discovery?” My partner responded with one letter, “y.” Was he asking why? Was he saying yes? Thanks, partner, we will move forward with one, both, or neither.
Good leaders don’t need to respond to every message. But when they send a message, the communication is clear. Proofread emails from the perspective of the recipient. Read them aloud. Look for dropped words or punctuation. When you write clean, unambiguous messages, you will be taken more seriously.
2. What is my tone?
The mood of your message is a vital part of writing. You must understand your audience. That will help you understand where your message may be misunderstood.
For example, I was copied on an associate’s plan to resolve a case for one of our clients to a senior partner. After that hard-working associate wrote a well-researched idea to the partner that took hours, that partner responded only with a “k.” What? That’s confusing and insulting. Did that partner think so little of the associate that he couldn’t be bothered to write more than a single letter? His response made it appear that the associate’s clear and comprehensive ideas hardly deserved any response. It obliterated morale for everyone on the email. Was the partner thinking about the plan? Was he dismissing it? Was he authorizing it? It was impossible to tell. The email from the partner was a complete waste of time and created hours of confusion that could have been solved with just a few more seconds of writing invested. That partner should have written something like, “Thank you for researching these issues. I’ll get back to you on the next steps.”
People want to feel heard. So if you don’t have time to give thoughtful attention to an email, send a quick response acknowledging that you got it and inform the recipient that will respond with the substance within a specified time. No response–or a terse one–communicates a lack of respect for the other person.
Never use exclamation points unless you are unambiguously communicating positive excitement. An English professor told me once that you have three exclamation points to use in your life, so use them sparingly. Don’t use them in any way that could be considered yelling. It is a sign of insecurity. When someone reads it later in a lawsuit or an objective review, you will appear to be a bully.
Research shows most people are overconfident in their capacity to correctly convey emotions by email. When communicating a message that may be negatively received by the recipient, use softening language like “I’m afraid that…” or “I fear that…” Using language that softens the blow is the tactical empathy making the other person feel understood. If your mood is ambiguous, explicitly state your mood in the email. If you’re happy with the work so far—write that. People rarely state their emotions. By letting people know you’re happy with the work, they are more likely to see your criticism as well-intended.
3. Should I pick up the phone instead?
It is essential to call when you need information. The details you send and receive are likely the ones you need the most. If your project is likely to create questions or your group needs to build rapport, then a meeting is vital.
When written communication becomes an endless loop of dialogue, it’s important to be the first person to pick up the phone. This shows you’re respectful and thoughtful. Do not respond in writing to a confusing or ambiguous email. Instead, speak face-to-face or by phone.
To avoid email miscommunication, stand in the shoes of your recipient. Imagine the worst way your words could be interpreted. Ask yourself whether your message is too short, your tone too harsh, or if an email is the most effective way of communicating. Email is an effective communication tool, but it also contains the power to create confusion if you don’t give it the time and attention to do it right.