Perhaps because email has been around for such a long time—as measured in internet years, at least—it’s easy to overlook the enormous power of the medium. We can get a lot done with just a few simple emails.
But the ease and speed with which we can convey our thoughts through email also increases the chances of writing something that can be easily construed by the recipient as confusing, insensitive, or downright rude.
I haven’t always gotten it right myself, and I try to learn from my mistakes. From the thousands of emails I’ve written and received over the years, I’ve identified a number of recurring styles and behaviors that people deploy in their emails.
It’s my hope that we can all become more aware of how we craft our emails, and the powerful impact they can have on the people we are addressing them to.
Here are six things to keep in mind if you want to write an “emotionally intelligent” email:
1. Imagine You’re Having a Face-to-Face Conversation
No matter how you express yourself through the words you write, email will always lack the subtle cues that you communicate through your facial expressions or tone of voice when you speak to someone in-person. These are critical signals that tell you how a person is reacting to what you’re saying, real-time feedback you need to shape your message.
Especially when writing sensitive emails that have the potential to be easily misconstrued, try to imagine the recipient is looking at you as you write, or reading what you’re writing, as you’re writing it.
2. Start With a Greeting
Would you start a conversation in person or on the phone by launching directly into what you want to say, without at least a simple “hello,” or “how are you?” Unless you’re completely oblivious to the basic principles of human etiquette, of course not!
So, why do so many people launch into emails without a simple greeting like “Hi,” “Hello,” “Hey,” or even the old-fashioned “Dear”?
Sure, once you’ve struck up a conversation in email and you start pinging each other with your quick responses, you can drop the pleasantries. But for that initial email that kicks off your electronic discussion, use a greeting.
3. Listen to Your Email “Voice”
Do you listen to the “sound” of your email “voice” when you write? You certainly have one, and it’s what people hear when they read your emails.
But too often we’re in a rush, under pressure, or otherwise focused on getting what we want, without considering the feelings or circumstances of the person we’re writing to.
When you’re sharing tough news verbally, you can adjust the tone, tempo, and volume of your voice in real-time—and with an extraordinary level of nuance. Email lacks this flexibility, so pay as much care to your choice of words when you write emails as you would when conversing with them in-person. This becomes especially important when delivering criticism of any sort.
4. When Asking for Something, Give a Reason
Ever get an email asking for something, but with no explanation why the person wants or needs it? I have. And it usually sounds like an order, not a request.
Include a reason whenever you ask for something by email. It’s a lot more motivating, it conveys respect, and it builds trust.
5. Imagine You’ve Just Put “Entire World” in the CC Field
It can happen: That private email you’ve just written for one person? Watch it become an instant viral hit that bounces off satellites and circles the globe many times over, just because the person decides to hit “forward,” or includes a few extra people in the CC field when she replies.
So step back from your laptop for a few moments, or put your email into the drafts folder for a day, before hitting send on sensitive email you think is private—but may not be.
6. Just Take it Offline
OK, so email is failing you. It’s making things worse. Stop the verbal arms race, close your email app, and pick up the phone, or, if possible, meet the person face-to-face.
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