Mindful Communication: Thoughts on User-Focused Emails

Not every writing projects ends up in a printing press. There are more purposeful words written under the loom of a best before date; i.e. messages of direct communication between a sender and a recipient which have to translate into real world actions.

This is a big, big topic and I will not attempt to fully cover it in this article. Or ever. People declare email bankruptcy, are desperate to manage expectations toward (online) communication… and they fail every day. Worse even: New communication technologies not only overwhelm the geeky minded, they put people in a golden cage of guilt. The multitude of communication channels can ultimately punish those who are most active in reaching out.

There are whole podcasts, books [1, 2], life-style-choices… devoted to this specific problem – I don't offer a solution here. However, what I would like to talk about is the role of everyday written words in the vicious cycle of information pollution – and how to improve your part of the equation.

Engaging others, or: The Golden Rule.

Imagine, or: remember: Someone can compose and send you an email (or letter, IM, text message…) in 30 seconds which is then capable to derail your plans for the day completely. A message that is so powerful, it raises your heart rate and puts your whole to-do list on the back burner. Because, someone with an internet connection send you a message… without thinking first.

This touches on topics such as grown-up communication, email etiquette… or, as I like to think of it: mindfulness in using your special powers. We all know: with great power comes great responsibility. However, it seems like the concept of reciprocity is not at the forefront of thoughts of those employing the fantastic new powers of instant communication.

It is so much easier to complain via Twitter than to google the problem first. It is so much easier to send an email to a colleague and let them deal with the missing receipts for Accounting, than to keep up with the paperwork yourself. It is sooo much easier to pay your bookkeeper the overnight fee than to have your tax returns ready. Because they show up for an unannounced surprise visit every year. At the same time.

Cutting the rant short, let's find mindful ways of enganging other people, for instance, via email.

The first rule of mindful communication: assume the pebble disaster.

Are you familiar with the pebble analogy? Merlin Mann described it with reference to email, but the analogy works for every communication channel: We all have our pebbles to carry, i.e. a variety of tasks to achieve, to-do items to maintain, responsibilities to full-fill, etc. Each and every one of these tasks is a tiny pebble. Every pebble has expectations attached to them, on how (fast) you solve the specific problem.

Imagine the person you are about to send an email to leads a busy life which is reflected in their inbox. They get many emails everyday, i.e. have a lot of pebbles to carry. The inbox is not the only pebble carrier in their life. Imagine your email is the tiny little pebble that crushes this person's spirit today…

There is a host of problems with this scenario. For starters, we don't know how many pebbles our colleague will have to deal with today. We often remain «black boxes» in that sense, even for people we work with on a daily basis. Let's face it: we also have our own pebbles to carry, our things to get done. And one of our pebbles may resolves itself, if only Steve from Accounting could handle this one little thing we are about to ask.

As we can never know whose Grandma just died or who got the short end of the stick this morning… why not assume a mindful attitude toward our fellow communicators? Why not always assume that your email may be the last straw that breaks our friend's back today – it certainly has the potential!

The second rule of mindful communication: mitigate the risk of failure.

When reaching out, we may not know the situation on the other end of the screen. However, we can adopt an attitude that is mindful of the reader and their time spend in this thread of communication. In addition, one can make the communication as reader- or user-focused as possible to ensure that the communication is successful.

For instance, a clear and direct call to action in an email can speed up the process in which the reader tries to figure out what is ask of them or what the point of the message is. Instead of writing

We were wondering whether you would want to attend the surprise party for Bridget on Thursday…


Will you attend Bridget's birthday party?

Date: Thursday, 17:30 hrs, after work

Venue: Great Tapas Bar

If YES: reply to Jane @ great-company.me by Monday.

which will get the organiser a list of party guests and will ease the pain of having to write yet another email for the recipient. State clearly what you need from the person you are conferring with – make the communication immediately actionable!

Another tool for mindful collaboration from a project management perspective would be: email friendly reminders to team members at points in time when outcomes can still benefit:

This is an automatic reminder for the Big Client team.
We'll have a milestone meeting with the Big Client tomorrow. If you have any questions or want to attend the meeting, please join us

Date: tomorrow, Wednesday, 26th March at 15:30 hrs
Venue: in the big blue conference room.

There is no point in sending out a rant to the whole team after two colleagues forgot about a time-sensitive issue! Reminders can make sure everybody is on the same page and knows what's going on.

Being explicit in stating what it is that you want from the other person and suggesting the possible options will increase the likelihood of (a) getting an answer at all, and (b) successful communication in time. By introducing the given options and limiting the potential action steps for the recipient, you are able to speed up the conversation. Make the communication as transparent and seamless for the other person as possible in order to get results in a timely manner.

Sensible defaults

Patrick Rhone recently published a thought-provoking Enough podcast episode entitled «Final Choices, Sensible Defaults». In this episode he addresses the fundamental (decision-making) problem of having too many options. More choices are not always better. Limiting options on purpose can ultimately make communication more effective and less of a hassle.

For instance, one could state at the beginning of a (longer) rather informative email which does not solicit an immediate response:

This is an update on the Big Client project. There is no need to respond immediately.

Another way of improving online communication is crafting a mindful subject-line, that says almost everything, or honestly indicates urgency. A subject-line is often relied upon when pre-screening and emergency-checking emails.

The subject is a built-in sensible default which allows you to help the recipient to process the information appropriately:

Subject: Big Client meeting tomorrow – Will you attend?

Subject: Big Client meeting tomorrow – Will you attend? Let me know by 4:30 PM!


I am waiting for the day that allows us to send polar questions (with answer-options YES / NO / comment field) as clickable forms via email. Until this is possible and for your general online correspondence: Be mindful when sending email requests.

  • Before writing an email, ask yourself: is this the best way to obtain this information? Are there better alternatives?
  • Make sure the email is send to the relevant person who is able to make the decision.
  • Make your emails actionable to speed up the process. Include as much information pertaining to the decision-making process as possible with your message.
  • Limit options available to the responder.
  • Use subject-lines effectively.
  • Respect your recipients' time when using instant communication tools. Assume that a busy person having a bad day receives your message.
  • When appropriate, use sensible defaults such as «NRN» (No Response Necessary, No Reply Needed) or «FYI» (For Your Interest) to indicate your expectations regarding response to the item.

Ask yourself what it is that you want to achieve with written communication, how you best help the recipient to answer / respond quickly to your question(s) or needs. What is it that you can do to improve the experience for the recipient(s)? If you would get this email today, what information would help you to execute on it?


UPDATE, 10/06/2011

I found a few more useful links on this topic:

Marissa Bracke keeps it short & sweet: How to email a busy person: Six tips for effective emails

How we interpret the lack of a response within a certain timeframe almost certainly tells us a great deal more about how we value and use e-mail than it does about how the recipient views or values us and our communication.

Seth Godin's Email checklist (maybe this time it'll work!):

Before you hit send on that next email, perhaps you should run down this list, just to be sure…

TED's Chris Anderson is on a mission to create an Email Charter:

To fix a 'commons' problem, a community needs to come together and agree new rules. That's why it's time for an Email Charter. One that can reverse the escalating spiral of obligation and stress.

Details & meta

Tue, 15/03/2011 - 17:20