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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 everyone@yourcompany.com 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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    More by this author

    Art Carden

    Art Carden is an Assistant Professor of Economics and Business at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.

    A Review of the Book “The Art of Learning” 21st Century Opportunities Learning from A Master: Review of “Bear Bryant, CEO” On “The Substance of Style” Productivity Hints from Booker T. Washington

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    Published on May 18, 2021

    How To Improve Listening Skills For Effective Workplace Communication

    How To Improve Listening Skills For Effective Workplace Communication

    We have two ears and one mouth for a reason—effective communication is dependent on using them in proportion, and this involves having good listening skills.

    The workplace of the 21st century may not look the same as it did before COVID-19 spread throughout the world like wildfire, but that doesn’t mean you can relax your standards at work. If anything, Zoom meetings, conference calls, and the continuous time spent behind a screen have created a higher level of expectations for meeting etiquette and communication. And this goes further than simply muting your microphone during a meeting.

    Effective workplace communication has been a topic of discussion for decades, yet, it is rarely addressed or implemented due to a lack of awareness and personal ownership by all parties.

    Effective communication isn’t just about speaking clearly or finding the appropriate choice of words. It starts with intentional listening and being present. Here’s how to improve your listening skills for effective workplace communication.

    Listen to Understand, Not to Speak

    There are stark differences between listening and hearing. Listening involves intention, focused effort, and concentration, whereas hearing simply involves low-level awareness that someone else is speaking. Listening is a voluntary activity that allows one to be present and in the moment while hearing is passive and effortless.[1]

    Which one would you prefer your colleagues to implement during your company-wide presentation? It’s a no-brainer.

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    Listening can be one of the most powerful tools in your communication arsenal because one must listen to understand the message being told to them. As a result of this deeper understanding, communication can be streamlined because there is a higher level of comprehension that will facilitate practical follow-up questions, conversations, and problem-solving. And just because you heard something doesn’t mean you actually understood it.

    We take this for granted daily, but that doesn’t mean we can use that as an excuse.

    Your brain is constantly scanning your environment for threats, opportunities, and situations to advance your ability to promote your survival. And yet, while we are long past the days of worrying about being eaten by wildlife, the neurocircuitry responsible for these mechanisms is still hard-wired into our psychology and neural processing.

    A classic example of this is the formation of memories. Case in point: where were you on June 3rd, 2014? For most of you reading this article, your mind will go completely blank, which isn’t necessarily bad.

    The brain is far too efficient to retain every detail about every event that happens in your life, mainly because many events that occur aren’t always that important. The brain doesn’t—and shouldn’t—care what you ate for lunch three weeks ago or what color shirt you wore golfing last month. But for those of you who remember where you were on June 3rd, 2014, this date probably holds some sort of significance to you. Maybe it was a birthday or an anniversary. Perhaps it was the day your child was born. It could have even been a day where you lost someone special in your life.

    Regardless of the circumstance, the brain is highly stimulated through emotion and engagement, which is why memories are usually stored in these situations. When the brain’s emotional centers become activated, the brain is far more likely to remember an event.[2] And this is also true when intention and focus are applied to listening to a conversation.

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    Utilizing these hard-wired primitive pathways of survival to optimize your communication in the workplace is a no-brainer—literally and figuratively.

    Intentional focus and concentrated efforts will pay off in the long run because you will retain more information and have an easier time recalling it down the road, making you look like a superstar in front of your colleagues and co-workers. Time to kiss those note-taking days away!

    Effective Communication Isn’t Always Through Words

    While we typically associate communication with words and verbal affirmations, communication can come in all shapes and forms. In the Zoom meeting era we live in, it has become far more challenging to utilize and understand these other forms of language. And this is because they are typically easier to see when we are sitting face to face with the person we speak to.[3]

    Body language can play a significant role in how our words and communication are interpreted, especially when there is a disconnection involved.[4] When someone tells you one thing, yet their body language screams something completely different, it’s challenging to let that go. Our brain immediately starts to search for more information and inevitably prompts us to follow up with questions that will provide greater clarity to the situation at hand. And in all reality, not saying something might be just as important as actually saying something.

    These commonly overlooked non-verbal communication choices can provide a plethora of information about the intentions, emotions, and motivations. We do this unconsciously, and it happens with every confrontation, conversation, and interaction we engage in. The magic lies in the utilization and active interpretation of these signals to improve your listening skills and your communication skills.

    Our brains were designed for interpreting our world, which is why we are so good at recognizing subtle nuances and underlying disconnect within our casual encounters. So, when we begin to notice conflicting messages between verbal and non-verbal communication, our brain takes us down a path of troubleshooting.

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    Which messages are consistent with this theme over time? Which statements aren’t aligning with what they’re really trying to tell me? How should I interpret their words and body language?

    Suppose we want to break things down even further. In that case, one must understand that body language is usually a subconscious event, meaning that we rarely think about our body language. This happens because our brain’s primary focus is to string together words and phrases for verbal communication, which usually requires a higher level of processing. This doesn’t mean that body language will always tell the truth, but it does provide clues to help us weigh information, which can be pretty beneficial in the long run.

    Actively interpreting body language can provide you with an edge in your communication skills. It can also be used as a tool to connect with the individual you are speaking to. This process is deeply ingrained into our human fabric and utilizes similar methods babies use while learning new skills from their parents’ traits during the early years of development.

    Mirroring a person’s posture or stance can create a subtle bond, facilitating a sense of feeling like one another. This process is triggered via the activation of specific brain regions through the stimulation of specialized neurons called mirror neurons.[5] These particular neurons become activated while watching an individual engage in an activity or task, facilitating learning, queuing, and understanding. They also allow the person watching an action to become more efficient at physically executing the action, creating changes in the brain, and altering the overall structure of the brain to enhance output for that chosen activity.

    Listening with intention can make you understand your colleague, and when paired together with mirroring body language, you can make your colleague feel like you two are alike. This simple trick can facilitate a greater bond of understanding and communication within all aspects of the conversation.

    Eliminate All Distractions, Once and for All

    As Jim Rohn says, “What is easy to do is also easy not to do.” And this is an underlying principle that will carry through in all aspects of communication. Distractions are a surefire way to ensure a lack of understanding or interpretation of a conversation, which in turn, will create inefficiencies and a poor foundation for communication.

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    This should come as no surprise, especially in this day in age where people are constantly distracted by social media, text messaging, and endlessly checking their emails. We’re stuck in a cultural norm that has hijacked our love for the addictive dopamine rush and altered our ability to truly focus our efforts on the task at hand. And these distractions aren’t just distractions for the time they’re being used. They use up coveted brainpower and central processes that secondarily delay our ability to get back on track.

    Gloria Mark, a researcher at UC Irvine, discovered that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds for our brains to reach their peak state of focus after an interruption.[6] Yes, you read that correctly—distractions are costly, error-prone, and yield little to no benefit outside of a bump to the ego when receiving a new like on your social media profile.

    Meetings should implement a no-phone policy, video conference calls should be set on their own browser with no other tabs open, and all updates, notifications, and email prompt should be immediately turned off, if possible, to eliminate all distractions during a meeting.

    These are just a few examples of how we can optimize our environment to facilitate the highest levels of communication within the workplace.

    Actions Speak Louder Than Words

    Effective communication in the workplace doesn’t have to be challenging, but it does have to be intentional. Knowledge can only take us so far, but once again, knowing something is very different than putting it into action.

    Just like riding a bike, the more often you do it, the easier it becomes. Master communicators are phenomenal listeners, which allows them to be effective communicators in the workplace and in life. If you genuinely want to own your communication, you must implement this information today and learn how to improve your listening skills.

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    Choose your words carefully, listen intently, and most of all, be present in the moment—because that’s what master communicators do, and you can do it, too!

    More Tips Improving Listening Skills

    Featured photo credit: Mailchimp via unsplash.com

    Reference

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