We’ve all had email threads that seem to go on forever. A coworker asks for a report. You respond and ask, which report? They get more specific. You ask when they need it. The back and forth can be frustrating and hard to follow, but there are things you can do to head off a long game of email ping-pong, says Catherine Mattiske, author of Leading Virtual Teams.
“It comes down to a very basic premise of people trying to communicate,” she says. “That’s where the gap is—it really has nothing to do with email. Email is just the vehicle by which that communication is sent.”
An old study from McKinsey & Co. estimated that the average office worker spends 28% of their day on email, with most people keeping it open in the background. That puts us in a hyper-alert stage, says Mattiske.
“When you get an email, instead of creating a bit of space to consider a response, people just fire back,” she says. “There’s a lot of reactive communication going on. And then eventually, the ping-pong just keeps going until someone says, ‘Let’s have a meeting.’ So now there’s an hour meeting booked, because effectively, the email wasn’t clear in the first place.”
To cut down on unnecessary email communication, Mattiske says you must realize not everyone prefers the same communication preferences that you do. Some people may like to talk in big ideas while others might prefer bulleted to-do lists. To be effective, your email needs to be balanced, so it can be understood no matter who reads it, and so you can get what you need from their response. Before you hit “send,” make sure your email covers these three bases:
Make a Connection
First, it’s important to create meaning and connection between you and the person or people receiving the email, says Mattiske. If you are requesting a report from a coworker, for example, you can start by saying, “Hi. I’m following up on our meeting from last week where we talked about the budget report.”
“There’s a why—why am I even sending this email?” says Mattiske. “It’s a short sentence that connects me to you.”
Add the Details
The next part of your email should provide the details. For example, you might ask, “Would you please send me the budget report and highlight X, Y, and Z?”
“Details are for people who communicate best with a list,” says Mattiske. “You might include a numbered request. If this isn’t how you communicate naturally, ask yourself, ‘What is it that I need?’ That is the detail you should include in your email.”
Be careful that you don’t overload your email with details, though, says Mattiske. “People sigh when they get ‘wallpaper’ emails,” she says. “Keep your communication short, concise, and to the point.”
And if your message requires a long backstory or a large amount of information, call, send a video message, or schedule a meeting.
Finish with a Construct
Finally, let the person know how you want them to do whatever you are requesting. For example, “Can you please send me the report in an Excel file by Thursday?”
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” says Mattiske, adding that you can also ask for the person’s input. For example, “If you’ve got any ideas about how to present his report to the next board meeting, I’d love to hear about it.”
When you take the time to send a balanced email, you eliminate the risk of needing back-and-forth communication and clarify your ask. “You’re more likely to get what you want, when you need it,” says Mattiske. “It may take you five minutes to write when you could have fired off a reactive email in 30 seconds. But if you add up all those 30-second email ping-pongs, they could add up to 15 minutes. Go slow in the beginning to go fast at the end.”
Ideally, managers should take the lead for effective communication, modeling good email structure, says Mattiske.
“The thing about email is that it’s lost its focus,” she says. “It’s become a reactive form of communication. We would never sit down and send a letter to somebody like we write an email. Instead of looking at an inbox and feeling like it’s a tsunami of stuff coming in, ask yourself, ‘Is that email about creating space and focus, or am I caught in a reaction?’ Before you press send, go back and add all those pieces that will help the reader.”