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A Quick Guide to Email: Not Being “That Guy”

A Quick Guide to Email: Not Being “That Guy”

A Quick Guide to Email: Not Being

    If you’re reading this, odds are you are a knowledge worker whose time is very valuable and who requires large chunks of uninterrupted time in order to do whatever it is you are being paid to do.  You aren’t cranking widgets.  Instead, you’re trying to discover the history and social significance of widgets across cultural contexts, or you’re trying to design a revolutionary new machine to produce widgets, or you’re looking for ways to improve the widget supply chain, or you’re working for an upstart start-up beta-testing widget 2.0.  Your time is valuable and interruptions can be extremely costly.  Not surprisingly, email is probably your #1 daily time-waster.  This article will take a slightly different tack.  Instead of offering suggestions for dealing with incoming email, I’m going to offer a few tips for not being “That Guy” who is constantly wasting everyone else’s time with email.

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    Email has changed the way that people communicate.  It has made it much, much easier to send and receive important information.  It has also made it much, much easier to send and receive time-wasting nonsense.  The cruel irony is that since important information requires so much more careful thinking, the proportion of workplace communication consisting of time-wasting nonsense has probably risen.  The amount of careful thinking required for important information and time-wasting nonsense might remain unchanged, but since the cost of transmission is now essentially zero, the relative cost of time-wasting nonsense has fallen.  Therefore, time-wasting nonsense consumes a larger share of workplace (indeed, total) communication.  So here are a few ways you can be an agent of change.

    Don’t Forward That Message.

    Did someone just send you an email suggesting that Bill Gates is driving around with his lights off so that he track down people who flash their lights at him, knock them out with “perfume samples,” rob them, and donate the proceeds to a charity that will help find a missing teenage girl from Philadelphia so she can testify before Congress to see that “In God We Trust” remains on US currency because if it doesn’t, “Touched By an Angel” will be forever banned from TV?  A couple of things are true about this email:

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    1. It’s probably a lie, and this can easily be verified at www.snopes.com.
    2. Even if it isn’t, it’s probably outside the ability of anyone you’re sending the forward to to do anything about.  The relevance and importance of an email is an increasing function of the degree to which it contains actionable information. It is possible that I may someday wake up in a bathtub full of ice with both kidneys removed if I don’t take certain precautionary steps.  This is extremely unlikely, and the potential email forwarder should not mistake what is possible from what is probable.  Just because something could happen doesn’t mean it will.

    Don’t Send Mass Requests to Distribution Lists Indiscriminately.

    Seriously.  Don’t.  Internal distribution lists were created to help people communicate mission-critical information to everyone on the list.  Do you have a friend who is looking for an apartment?  Need to find a home for a stray cat?  Use Craigslist, not the [email protected] distribution list.  These messages do convey information that some people find useful but that a lot of other people don’t.

    Get the Email Monkey Off Your Back.

    This is standard advice among people who want to control their information inflow.  It’s also great advice for people who want to control their information output, too.  Specifically, it’s a great way to increase the signal-to-noise ratio of your information output.  Staying constantly engaged with email increases the number of opportunities you have to produce garbled, noisy communication, while being judicious about your email is a good way to prevent yourself from abusing a friend or colleague’s precious mental energy. The popular “email monkey” metaphor is appropriate for another reason.  Monkeys are notorious for throwing fecal matter.  Common courtesy demands that you not throw a digital version of the same thing.

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    Establishing expectations is also important.  I’ve run into a couple of snafus because people expect me to be connected at all times.  It’s true that this created some trouble, but communicating to people that I’m not always and everywhere available was worth it.  Further, for the prospective time-wasting emailer, it is important to remember that when you waste someone else’s time you invite them to waste yours. If you get a lot of stupid emails, this might be in part due to the fact that people know they can contact you at any time and get an immediate response.

    Ask Whether Your Email Is Important.

    Are you asking someone for information that could be looked up easily?  Even if it isn’t, are you sure that what you’re asking for is the best use of the recipient’s time?  If you’re asking a subordinate to prepare a brief on how the sock industry performed last year, are you being clear in what you’re asking for?  Do they trust that their time isn’t being wasted?  If the answer to any of these is “no,” then re-read and re-think the email you’re about to send.

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    Build Good Email Habits By Starting Small.

    We all produce a great deal of “Ill Communication”.  It’s a byproduct of the digital age.  When you have a few free minutes, look in your “sent items” folder for the number of emails you sent yesterday.  At least one of those was probably unnecessary, so you can probably save your company and yourself time and energy by trying to reduce that number by one.  During your weekly review (you are doing a weekly review, aren’t you?), try to calculate the number of emails you send in an average day and try to reduce that average.  The next week, try to reduce that average by one.  I would guess that most people could cut their email output by ten percent or so and maintain or even increase their productivity, all other things remaining equal.

    The problem with email is that it allows the email sender to treat everyone’s attention as if it were common property. This produces a predictable “tragedy of the commons” whereby everyone’s attention is being over-exploited.  The norms of courtesy for email communication are still being developed, and it is important for people to learn how to respect others’ time and attention.  For the email-ee, it is important to show people how to do this by being diligent about ensuring that they do not encroach on your private property: your time and your attention.

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    Last Updated on January 15, 2019

    What Are Interpersonal Skills? Master Them for Better Relationships

    What Are Interpersonal Skills? Master Them for Better Relationships

    When I wrote my book Extraordinary PR, Ordinary Budget: A Strategy Guide, I was surprised at the various layers of review and editing necessary to get the book to publication. Before I ever submitted the manuscript, I enlisted a former colleague to read and copy edit my work. Then, I submitted my work to an editor at the publisher’s house, and once she approved it, she sent it to her colleagues and then her company’s editorial board.

    Upon editorial board approval of my book, my editor sent my work to reviewers in my field, then a developmental editor, then a designer and layout team and, finally, another copy editor. There were a host of personalities with whom I needed to interact along the way.

    It turns out that getting a publishing contract was just the beginning – a lot happens between developing a concept, writing the book, finding an agent and publisher, and getting the book on bookshelves or on Audible or Kindle. Through every milestone of the publishing process, my ability to interact with others was crucial. This underscored for me that no matter what or how much a person accomplishes, you never do it alone – everyone needs assistance from others.

    While I conceived of the book and wrote the manuscript, there is no way my book could have hit booksellers’ shelves without the dozens of people who were involved in the publishing process. Further, interpersonal skills can propel or stonewall success.

    Even as someone who has written hundreds of essays, press releases, pitch notes and other correspondence, writing itself is not a solitary endeavor. Sure, I may write in solitude, but the moment I am finished writing, there are always clients, colleagues, partners, peers and others who review my content.

    What is more, even as a published author and contributor for this platform, I try to never submit final copy (content) that has not been copy edited. I send everything to my copy editor, whom I pay out of my own pocket, for her review, edits and approval. Once she has reviewed my work, caught unbeknownst-to-me errors, I am much more confident putting my work out in the world.

    How Interpersonal Skills Affect Relationships

    It is clearer to me now more than ever before that interpersonal skills are needed in every profession and every trade.

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    People don’t elect leaders because the leaders are smart. Individuals are motivated to vote when they have a hero and when they feel they have something to lose. If they seriously dislike the other candidate, they are much more likely vote according to a 2000 Ohio State University study:

    “A disliked candidate is seen as a threat, and that will be motivation to go to the polls. But a threat alone isn’t enough – people need to have a hero to vote for, too, in order to inspire them to turn out on Election Day.”

    In a work setting, interpersonal skills impact every facet of your development and success. Trainers must collaborate with a design team or the company hiring them to facilitate the training. During the training itself, the facilitators must connect with the audience and establish a rapport that supports vulnerability and openness. If the trainers interact poorly with the trainees, they are unlikely to be invited back. If they are invited back, they may be unlikely to inspire cooperation or growth in their trainees.

    Solopreneurs interactions with clients and subcontractors, and those interactions will, in part, support or adversely impact their business. If you enjoy a career as an acclaimed surgeon or respected lawyer, your interactions with patients, clients, health insurance agencies and a team of other practitioners – many of whom are shielded from public view – will improve or decimate your practice.

    As a hiring manager, one of the things I consider when interviewing candidates is their interpersonal skills. I assess the interpersonal skills they display in their content and face-to-face presentation. I ask probing questions to learn how they interact with others, manage conflict and contribute to a team atmosphere.

    When candidates say things like, “I prefer to work alone” or “I can hit the ground running without assistance,” I bristle. When candidates appear to know everything and everyone, I wonder if they will be receptive to learning or open to feedback. Could these statements be indications that these individuals lack interpersonal skills?

    It stands to reason, then, that interpersonal skills are among the most valuable and the bedrock of all talents and skills.

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    What are Interpersonal Skills?

    Interpersonal skills range from emotional intelligence, empathy, oral and written communication to leadership to collaboration and teamwork.

    In sum, interpersonal skills are skills that enable you to interact well with others. They include teachability and receptiveness to feedback, active or mindful listening, self-confidence and conflict resolution.

    From a communications standpoint, interpersonal skills are about understanding how colleagues prefer to communicate and then using the appropriate mediums to meet respective needs. It is about understanding how to communicate in a way to get the most out of different people.

    For instance, in my career as a public relations practitioner, part of what I am constantly evaluating is which colleagues, clients and members of the media prefer email, text or phone calls. I am assessing how much frill to use with each person depending on what has worked in the past and depending on what I know about the person with whom I am interacting.

    Making these decisions and being disciplined enough to follow each person’s known preferences helps me better connect with the various individuals in my orbit. Is this tiring at times? Yes. Is it necessary? Absolutely.

    How to Improve Interpersonal Skills

    There are tons of resources to teach interpersonal skills. I love books such as Leadership Presence by Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar, and The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman.

    There are also a host of books and articles on emotional intelligence, which is the ability to manage one’s emotions and perceive and adapt to others’ emotions. Emotional intelligence is likewise a critical component of positive interpersonal relations. You can learn more about it in this article: What Is Emotional Intelligence and Why It Is Important

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    Active and mindful listening also support improved interpersonal skills. I recommend you take a look at this piece: Active Listening – A Skill That Everyone Should Master

    I have further found that humility helps a ton with interpersonal skills. It takes humility to admit you have more to learn and that you can learn from the people around you. In fact, everyone with whom you interact has a lesson to teach you. And employers are increasingly looking for team members who are lifelong learners, meaning they believe there is always room for growth and professional and personal development.

    Forbes contributor Kevin H. Johnson noted in a July 2018 article,

    “That’s why, when anyone asks what the next ‘hot’ skill will be, I say it’s the same skill that will serve people today, tomorrow, and far into the future—the ability to learn.”

    Don’t overlook introspection.

    While interpersonal skills may seem simple enough, introspection is critical to learning where and in what ways you need to grow.

    Through introspection and observation, I have learned that my interpersonal skills suffer when I am sleep deprived, because then I am short-tempered and irritable. I’ve observed this connection over a significant period in my life. Unsurprisingly, it is also true of others. Fellow LifeHack contributor, health coach and personal trainer Jamie Logie noted:

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    When you are chronically sleep deprived, it really does a number on you. A lack of sleep can keep your body in a constant state of stress and over time this can get pretty ugly. Elevated stress hormones can be involved in creating a bunch of pretty nasty conditions including anxiety, headaches and dizziness, weight gain, depression, stroke, hypertension, digestive disorders, immune system dysfunction, irritability.

    Additionally, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development reported,

    “Sleep deprivation can noticeably affect people’s performance, including their ability to think clearly, react quickly, and form memories. Sleep deprivation also affects mood, leading to irritability; problems with relationships, especially for children and teenagers; and depression. Sleep deprivation can also increase anxiety.”

    The point is, even as you are identifying ways to improve interpersonal skills, think about what is getting in the way. While sleep deprivation is a trigger for me, your stumbling block may be different.

    The Bottom Line

    You cannot fix what you do not know is broken. Even as you work to understand and apply interpersonal skills, spend some time in mindful meditation to get clear on what is holding you back from developing solid relationships.

    Featured photo credit: Austin Distel via unsplash.com

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