Collaborative Communication & Email: Best Practices (or How Not to Drive Your Colleagues Entirely Crazy)
[Please note: The views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BayNVC as a whole.]
RECENTLY I’VE BEEN CONSULTING with businesses and organizations, teaching communication skills and conflict resolution. Sometimes I’m working with a team; other times I’m coaching a manager or executive. Either way, sooner or later, the topic of email comes up. Often someone is navigating a particularly thorny situation. Other times, the questions are more generic: What should you say in an email, when should you say it, how do you weigh in on a topic without losing your job? Yikes.
Happily for my geeky heart, this is the territory of Venn diagrams, where Collaborative Communication overlaps with best business practices. If you think about this from the perspective of OFNR, a work-related email needs to include Observations (a factual description of what’s going on), Needs (the underlying core values at stake) and Requests (proposals and solutions). Depending on your organization’s culture, you may or may not want to discuss Feelings.
BUT AS EVER, THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION IS, what is the purpose of this interaction? In our personal lives, we often focus on process and connection, while in the professional world, there’s usually a higher priority on strategies and action. When you send a business email, consider what needs you’re trying to meet—for yourself and also for the other person. In my work-related communications, my goals often include several of the following: clarity, understanding, support, effectiveness, efficiency, order, shared reality and respect.
With this in mind, here are five tips—the most important things I know to create productive (and harmonious!) emails:
- SEND A SEPARATE EMAIL FOR EACH TOPIC
If you have several different matters to discuss, don’t put them into one message; instead create a separate email for each topic. Why? Many people use their in-box as a to-do list. If you include multiple topics within a single memo, you’re interfering with your colleague’s ability to track all the different tasks—which is also bad for you. If your email contains a host of issues, your recipient is likely to respond to one or two, and then forget the rest. So keep it simple: one email, one topic. It may seem odd to send five separate emails in the space of a few minutes, but I can’t tell you how many times people have thanked me for doing just that.
- MAKE YOUR SUBJECT LINE RELEVANT AND SPECIFIC
I may be a bit, hmmm, passionate on this one; let me climb on my soapbox and rant for a moment. So: No more vague or generic subject lines; no more “Hello!” or “Just checking in.” When it’s midnight and I’m frantically searching for your missive about the super urgent deadline at 8am tomorrow, nothing makes me crankier than being unable to find it because your subject line says “About that project.”
“That project? Which project?!!” I’m growling as I scroll through your multitudinous messages. Even worse, your subject line may cheerfully warble, “See you tomorrow at Alessandro’s,” because two weeks ago we scheduled a lunch date—and now your evil twin has recycled that old thread to discuss a brand new (and completely unrelated) topic. If you do this to me, I will never share my fries with you again. Also, I may or may not miss your deadline accidentally on purpose. (Because I, too, have an evil twin.) To remain in my good graces, send me a subject line that tells me exactly what’s important right now: “Frickenberry report; final edits due Sept 1 @ 8am.” If we continue our digital discussion, as long as we stay on topic, you can keep using the same thread, because it’s helpful to keep all the relevant data in one place. But when the focus of our conversation shifts, UPDATE THE SUBJECT LINE. As in, “Frickenberry report; need graphics, due Sept 9 @ 5pm.” Do this, and I’ll love you forever. I’ll even treat for that chai latte you like so much.
PUT YOUR MOST IMPORTANT INFO INTO THE FIRST THREE LINES OF THE EMAIL
Years ago, a friend told me he had ADHD and found email overwhelming. He said I should just assume he’d read the first three lines of any message and ignore the rest. What? My most precious words, over which I had labored and fretted—he wasn’t going to read them? First I was angry, then astonished, then angry again. Eventually I cooled off and decided to take my friend’s proclamation as a challenge. Fine: I’d put the most essential information into the first three sentences of my email. Ha! That would show him.
And it did. Instead of having my emails ignored, now I got an immediate response. Instead of having to constantly follow up with this guy, asking my questions over and over, he simply answered them. Miraculous! In fact, this experience turned out to be a gift: I realized that overall, while 10% of my colleagues would carefully study every word of my emails and reply accordingly, the other 90% reviewed the first few lines and then skimmed (or, let’s face it, skipped) the rest. I made a global change to my email protocol: Instead of beginning with an explanation of the context and back story, I simply made my request up front, including a due date—followed by a separate paragraph which supplied the background info. Anyone who wanted to read the entire epic could do so; anyone who preferred to cut to the chase had the means to do that. Win/win.
IF YOU HAVE MULTIPLE QUESTIONS, PUT THEM IN A NUMBERED LIST
This one is tricky because some people may think that a numbered list of questions comes across as too formal or harsh, while others will appreciate the clarity of your agenda. You’ll need to experiment and see what works for your particular audience. What I can say is that when I ask several questions within a paragraph format, many readers will respond to only one or two of my queries—leaving me to send out another email to address the outstanding issues. When I transfer my questions to a numbered list, I usually receive all the answers in one round.
- DON’T USE EMAIL FOR CONFLICT RESOLUTION
Clients often ask me how to respond to conflict via email. Here’s my answer: Don’t. Just don’t. No matter how clear you are, how careful, how reasonable, how respectful—whatever—email is still much more likely to escalate problems than resolve them. When friction already exists, both parties are predisposed to interpret each other’s words in the most negative way possible. And if your colleague can’t see your body language or hear your voice, the likelihood of an unhappy outcome just increases.
My best advice? When you receive an email that’s attempting to resolve a conflict, reply like this:
- Reflect back a very brief description of the situation–one sentence.
- Make an empathy guess about the underlying core issues—what really matters to the other person?
- Absolutely, positively do not address the conflict itself. Do not tell your side of the story. Not one word. (This will be the hardest part. Be strong.)
- Propose that you schedule a meeting in person (ideally) or by phone/video conference to resolve the situation. Tell your colleague that you care about the relationship and want the best possible chance to make things right. Tell them you’re worried that email will exacerbate your problems, so you’d like to arrange a voice-to-voice conversation.
- Ask if they’d be willing to have a neutral person support the two of you by facilitating the conversation.
- Send the email. Go home and indulge in the self-care activity of your choice. Maybe a glass of your favorite beverage? A hot shower? There’s also yoga, chocolate, a walk with your dog and really terrible television. I won’t judge. I promise.
LISA MONTANA offers personal and executive coaching, conflict resolution, and facilitation of group meetings and decisions. She works with individuals, families, businesses and organizations around the country. Lisa came to conflict resolution from the business world, where she witnessed frequent disputes, most of them handled in ways that nobody liked. With Collaborative Communication, she found a model in which everyone’s needs matter and against all odds, has seen wildly antagonistic foes find common ground.
Contact Lisa at: Lisa@BayNVC.org
Copyright ⓒ 2019 Lisa Montana. Reprint with permission.