Julius Šėporaitis / Sepa Software Engineering

Being email friendly

Managing email is hard. All notifications, error messages and marketing email aside I get a few actionable emails from people, a day. The number itself is by no means big, but the keyword here is actionable. Actionable means - it has an important information inside - which triggers an action - a code review reminder, a bug hunt request, a check in the code to confirm that a feature is not a bug, a reply to a partner or coleague, unblocking their tasks.

All of it takes time and we always want to save it to have more time for our own tasks at hand. And I, for instance, can be charged guilty for trying to save this precious time by reducing the email output: write less emails or if I can - write less words. Less words mean less information and human touch. Less of both result in miscommunication, uncertainty and general grumpiness.

I used to do this extensively - reply when I have something to share, with just enough information. If an actionable email came in - I used to reply when I had done it, unless explicitly asked for an estimate. Well, it took one book and a period of silent experiments, until I think I finally can say that my email etiquette has made an almost 180 turn, not full 180 because when overwhelmed - I sin and not reply properly or in time, and my personal inbox still hurts. But here's how the good things happened...

There are countless blog posts and books about inbox management, what might set this one as unique - is the fact that the book which helped me was not about email management, but rather - about making friends. In fact a neveraging classic - "How to Make Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie.

It is a simple book about human(e) interactions. I honestly regret not reading this book much much earlier, but I am happy that I did eventually. What I liked the most about it - it had practical examples of situations. For me - lacking in people skills - this was the backbone of the change and I started applying the principles from the book, that could be applied to email, immediately.

In the similar way as the book, I'll present a principle and how I applied it. Hopefully, you'll find something new and useful.

Remember that a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language

Writing a name in emails for me feels rude, but if an email is genuinely about the person why start it with plain ol' "Hi," or other, when you can write:

Hi Name,

Feels awkward to start with a name in a multi-person thread, but if I appreciate what person does - I would try and use the name at least once in the main body.

Talk in terms of other persons interests

I use this one at work, if I have to write an email to our partners - I spend couple of extra minutes thinking what my goal is and how to reflect it in terms of what the recipient might be interested in. It is very easy to just go with "Hi, I want this and that done by then, otherwise I cannot do mutual interest here," it is much more effective to write:

Hi Name, I am close to delivering mutual interest, but before I can do that I need couple of questions answered.

Make the other person feel important - and do it sincerely

I recently read an article, of which one idea stuck to me: leaders avoid using first person pronouns. So, striving to emulate a small leadership quality, I started to avoid using first person pronouns, except when absolutely necessary. In turn - the result is more about the recipient. It felt unnatural and insincere at first. Just because I have never tried to do this, but after a little practice - multiple rewrites of the paragraph - I would get to a satisfying result and feel genuinely happy that I do not sound selfish and the person on the other end, whom I might have never seen, would feel important - I started to sincerely want that.

Hi Name, mutual interest is not far from being finished and your guidance could help me take the last step.

Begin with a praise and honest appreciation

Raise hand if you started email with your needs and requirements. Well, working day to day we all usually are at a mercy of various requests that we have to eventually fulfill. We all strive to feel important and appreciated, but do we appreciate others? I certainly feel like I did not and even as I write this I think - I could do better. Why not spend an extra minute or two and do a recap of things already done and write one or two sentences about that?

Hi Name, your guidance was really invaluable for us so far towards the mutual interest. We are not far from the finish line and if you could provide us with more information - that would really make a big difference.

If someone did a good job taking initiative - mention it and thank for it. If you are just a man in the middle delegating requests that others implement - mention how the implementation is doing and how it helped. If long weeks of mutual work is finally over - recap and reflect how good the collaboration was! Heck, if someone replied quickly - appreciate the quick response!

People already spent or will spend time for your interest - at the very least say "Thanks a lot!" I know this sort of example smells generic - it is, but the point holds: there is always something to appreciate.

Let the other person save face

Too often something is mistyped or forgotten. At work people are busy and overwhelmed with more than work - it is easy to forget that mistakes are natural. Thus, instead of pointing to an error, why not think - is it really that important?

Here's one idea from computer science - idempotence - that I applied multiple times with a lot of success. Roughly speaking it means that you can do certain operation multiple times without changing the result. I apply it by thinking: is the mistake bad enough that if I would ask to repeat the same action - something would break? If the answer is "Not" - I rephrase the question as if nothing happend and send it back. No harm, no bitter.

Hi Name, your guidance was really invaluable for us so far towards the mutual interest. We are not far from the finish line and if you could provide us with more information - could you send us documentation on XYZ?

Call attention to people's mistakes indirectly; and Talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person

Another tool I use - is to not assume too much about what happened at recipient side of things and assume it was my fault. I am not a native english speaker, but at least 8 hours a day I speak, think and write in english. Mistakes are destined to follow me. When something is done in a different way than I asked - I assume it was because I was not clear enough. Rephrasing the question in terms of what I failed to say and what I meant (not pointing to failure to understand me) usually helps a great deal.

Hi Name, your guidance was really invaluable for us so far towards the mutual interest. I have read the documentation and I failed to find the part explaining what I need to do, could you pinpoint me to a page or keyword I should search for?

By admitting that you misunderstood something or failed to express something - you will be right most of the time, even when you're wrong.

Ask questions instead of giving direct orders

Do you respond to "do this and that" with enthusiasm? Or "From now on things will be this way"? I don't, though I used to do it, not that harshly, but in a similar manner. The fact is - noone likes to take orders, especially if they are not justified. Save yourself some time arguing and ask a question: "What do you think if ..?", "Could you find time for ..?", "Do you think doing ... makes sense?" - what is worst that could happen? You'll hear something you haven't thought about.

Throw down a challenge; and Let the other person do a great deal of the talking; and Let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers

Just recently after a nudge on the side I had another thought about how I write specs: why do I take the juiciest bit out of the task? The exploration? The ideas? The possibility of slipping, getting up and finishing it just in time? Oh the excitement! I don't know! I work with smart bunch of people and I decided to give it a try - my latest spec is "where we are now" and "where we want to be" and couple of observations where I think slippery places might be. So far it's going great - there's now a plan which sounds better than I had been thinking of and it is about to kick off. Hope it goes well!

No but's and yet's

I think this one is not from the book, but a rule that I adopted to great extent.

What do you feel when you read "You are great, but ..." or "Things are working fine, yet ..." - you just wait for something negative. Alternatively, what do you think when you read "You are great and ..." or "Things are working fine and ...". Your defenses are down! Red alert! No!

The ugly truth is that if I say something relatively negative after "and" it sounds much much milder than after a "but" or "yet", even if the whole sentence feels weird. Compare "This is great, but could be better." to "This is great and it could be even better."

Conclusion

To most - all of this probably sounds obvious or natural, but for me - it wasn't.

I can even share couple of success stories: The changes were noticed by colleagues. One partner replied even while on holiday, although the request I had was nothing urgent, I just wrote it in a friendly way - I felt happy and appreciated the reply. Another, a big tech company every year running a big show in London, said it was a pleasure to work with us - which indeed was from our side too and this appreciation was exchanged multiple times. Various technical support communications are now more exciting when you feel that people care and try to reply quickly and even follow up unprompted.

I have yet to bring all this into my personal inbox, which lacks attention, and generally into real life people skillset. Sometimes I forget, but I guess practice just takes time.

If you feel you can relate to all this - I cannot recommend enough "How to Make Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie - it has made a profound impact to the quality of my people skills.