5 tips for responding to emails that will save your professional life

Emails are one of the most dynamic and unwittingly dangerous communication tools that exist. And they are here to stay.

As we jet through facebook, tweeter and google+ on to the emerging applications of the future, the email will take the ride buckled into the seat right beside ours, sipping a cocktail, sure of its destiny.

The use of this powerful tool calls for no license, training or mentorship. It is a technology open for all to use — freely and innocently. The email is seen as an efficient, flowing and communication-fomenting vehicle.

Until your first crash.

It is then that you realize the amount of damage this tool can cause in the blink of a human eye. And you also realize, much to your horror, that emails are less biodegradable than steel. They are permanent.

Once you push the send button, they cannot be taken back or amended. Ever. Just that simple thought makes me shudder.

As a content and communication strategist, I believe we all need a little guidance to avoid disasters — a few handy tips or rules that will help to keep our professional relationships healthy and robust.

Before I go on to the 5 tips, however, I first need to make a confession.

A few days ago, I broke my own key rules on responding to professional emails. I also broke the back-up rule that I had set up in case I wanted to break a key rule.

Of course, a small crash ensued.

This is how I broke the key rules:

I responded in the wrong way to a client via email. I let myself get tangled in a net of words and reactions, and responded too quickly, with too much content and with a completely wrong tone. I was trying to be right instead of trying to reach my professional goal.

This is the back-up rule I broke:

If you want to break a key rule, immediately stop what you are doing and do something else completely different for a little while. Then return and look at the situation again.

I did none of that.

I was held prisoner by the person inside me who existed long before those rules were written — the primal me. The one who responds to outside stimuli, reacts quickly without reflection and occasionally growls while pawing the ground.

Who knows what the consequences of that email will be. Only time will tell.

Meanwhile as the minutes and hours tick by, marked loudly by the clumsy hands of my guilt and disbelief, I thought I might try to redeem myself by largely and publicly embracing a couple of my personal philosophies:

  • Learn lots from your mistakes and turn them into shiny jewels.
  • Find a way to share with people things that will be helpful to them.

Therefore I have now written 5 tips for responding to emails that will save your professional life:


1.  Be aware of your tone and message length

Keep the tone of your words friendly, measured and anchored in the goal of the message. The longer a response, the more an emotion is likely to seep in. This does not mean that your passion and humor cannot be beautifully and strategically communicated. It means do not let any of four emotions of anger, sadness, fear or (euphoric) happiness take your words over, no matter how articulate and gifted of a writer you are. Things can become quickly out of balance and you take your reader somewhere other than your intended destination or objective, which is to continue a professional relationship —present or future.

As you are writing an email response, you must honestly ask yourself: What is the intention behind my words?

If you feel like some emotion is poking through your message, don’t send that email. Your goals won’t be met.

2.  Practice the aikido technique if an email clearly evokes an emotion

Do not take personally what a client, potential client, higher-up or business associate writes in an email. Even if they are rejecting a project, asking for a lowered price, questioning your expertise, complaining about an aspect of your work, comparing you to your competition or hedging on answers.

This is very hard to practice, but vital. This is where I suggest the aikido technique, which simply translated means stepping out of the way as your opponent rushes at you with words. They will use their own force and find no resistance from you. They will surely tire, and you will have used little energy and an agile strategy instead of entering into the battle, no matter how skilled a word warrior you are.

Of course, these are all metaphors, yet their imagery can be delightful to invoke in times of frustration or pain; they will take your mind off the feeling the email has created.

3. Your goal is not to be right

Your goal is to keep communication channels open, flowing and positive. Being the smartest or the cleverest or the most knowledgeable or the one who wins all the arguments or the one who always has the last word can be a great weekend hobby with friends and family, but not for responding to professional emails with current, former or potential clients-bosses-colleagues-associates. It is not your goal — keep repeating that over and over.

This is not my goal. This is not my goal. This is not my goal. My goal is to keep communication open. Keep communication open. Keep communication open.

Mantras work; use them.

4.  Say what you mean with excellent words, not creative punctuation

It is hard enough to get clear meaning across using words, sentences, tone, and correct punctuation.  Precise messages that are clearly understood by the reader at the other end of the email — someone that is perhaps in a completely different physical, linguistic and cultural environment than you  — will not happen with the smiley, frowny, winking faces composed of colons, semicolons, or other combinations.  :♦)

Stick with words, which is a language code that most generations of readers understand. And write with excellence in the language you are using, being very careful about spelling and grammar. A well-written email leaves the kind of footprint you want as a professional. Long after you have begun other projects and past communications are nothing but a faint synaptic trace, your emails can be kept alive in a hard disk or on a server for eons.

Be careful with exclamation marks!! Use them as if they were very small pieces of dynamite — too many will blow up the tone and message. So, either leave them out or use them sparingly.

Here is an interesting story that illustrates this point: a client of mine who hires international consultants told me that she measures one particular consultant’s emotional state by the number of exclamation points he uses in his email communications. She said that if he uses more than three, she sees insecurity being masked by manic happiness. If he uses none or only one in the message, she sees stability.

He, however, is oblivious to what he is communicating to his reader.

5.  Remember, no one is a blank slate

Not you, not your client, not the board members, not a potential funder, not the CEO or the next-door neighbor is a blank slate, free of accumulated emotion.

No one, except perhaps a zen master, receives communication from others in a place of emptiness and unaffected openness. (If you are a zen master who only communicates to other zen masters, you can stop reading here. All others should continue.)

I think it is more helpful to think of all people as permanently loaded slingshots. Other people’s slingshots are loaded with all kinds of life matter that has nothing to do with you.

Family issues, relationship issues, professional worries, emotions and moods, needs, pressures and different points of view — all of this is wadded together in the other end of the stretched rubber band. And who knows when the tension will be too much and the rubber band shoots the stuff of their life wherever it happens to be aimed at a given moment — while writing you an email, for example.

This human slingshot reloads by itself and points in another direction automatically, often in the most random fashion.

We all do this.

Imagine the two people writing and responding to each other’s emails as loaded slingshots sitting in front of a computer or with a small screen in their hand tapping away at the keyboard. The way someone responds to you in most cases has very little to do with you and more to do with what is loaded in their slingshot.

So, step aside (aikido technique) when a wad of words comes hurling at you, and respond with your goal in sight, mindful that there are also emotions and issues that are wadded up in your own loaded slingshot that you will be careful not to let show up in your words.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

These are the 5 tips that will work if used. However, in the special case that all of these rules do not work, there is one last back up that will save you from a crash; it’s new and has been tested as more effective than its predecessor.

New back-up tip

If you simply must compose the response you are craving to express, write it, read it a couple of times, growl for a while and paw at the ground, enjoying the primal sensations.

Then delete it and write the one that will keep the doors to communication open long after the email has been sent, read and stored in someone’s memory.

Why bother to do all of this?

Because the next time this person needs a skill, service or product that you offer, you will be the one who comes to mind, standing at the threshold of that open door, illuminated by the golden rays of opportunity.

If you have any other tip, I would love to hear about it.

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