How to stop email ping-pong once and for all

We’ve all had email threads that seemed to go on forever. A colleague asks for a report. You answer and ask which report? You get more specific. They ask when they need it. The back-and-forth can be frustrating and hard to follow, but there are things you can do to avoid a lengthy email ping-pong, says Catherine Mattiske, author of Lead virtual teams.

“It boils down to a very basic premise of people trying to communicate,” she says. “That’s the loophole – it really has nothing to do with email. Email is just the vehicle through which that communication is sent.”

An old study by 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 hyperactive phase, says Mattiske.

“When they get an email, people just reply instead of giving some space to think about a reply,” she says. “There is a lot of reactive communication going on. And eventually the ping-pong just keeps going until someone says, ‘Let’s have a meeting.’ So now a one-hour meeting is booked because the email wasn’t clear in the first place.”

According to Mattiske, to reduce unnecessary email communication, you need to be aware that not everyone has the same communication preferences as you. Some people like to speak in big ideas, while others might prefer bulleted to-do lists. To be effective, your email needs to be balanced so that it can be understood regardless of who reads it and so that you get what you need from their response. Before you hit send, make sure your email covers these three basics:

Establish a connection

First, it’s important to create meaning and connection between you and the person or people receiving the email, Mattiske says. For example, if you’re requesting a report from a colleague, you can start by saying, “Hello. I’ll follow up on our meeting last week where we discussed 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 contain 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 could add a numbered request. If you’re not communicating naturally this way, ask yourself, “What do I need?” That’s the detail to include in your email.”

But be careful not to overload your email with details, says Mattiske. “People sigh when they get ‘background’ email,” 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, video message, or schedule a meeting.

End with a construct

Finally, let the person know how to do what you’re asking them to do. For example: “Can you please send me the report in an Excel file by Thursday?”

“Now we’re getting there,” says Mattiske, adding that you can also ask the person for their opinion. For example: “If you have any ideas on how to present his report at the next board meeting, I’d love to hear about it.”

Taking the time to send a balanced email eliminates the risk of back-and-forth communication and clarifies your question. “You’re more likely to get what you want when you need it,” says Mattiske. “You can take 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 at the beginning to go fast at the end.”

Ideally, managers should take the lead in communicating effectively and modeling a good email structure, says Mattiske.

“The thing about email is that it’s lost its focus,” she says. “It has become a reactive form of communication. We would never sit down and send someone a letter like we write an email. Instead of looking at an inbox and feeling like a tsunami of things is pouring in, ask yourself, “Is this email about creating space and focus, or am I caught in a reaction?” Before you press submit, go back and add all the bits that will help the reader.”

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