Before You Respond to that Email, Pause Anthony K. Tjan
Someone sends you an email message or a text, and you’re unsure how to respond. It’s about a complex negotiation, or a politically sensitive situation. Or maybe it’s just from a person who unnerves you.
For a moment, you pause. But for most of us, most of the time, that pause doesn’t last long. Instead we react, feeling the need to immediately craft a response. And often we then hit “send” without fully thinking. The result: an awkward or incomplete message that causes the recipient to pause, then react, often starting or continuing a cycle of miscommunication and misunderstanding.
Yes, people today expect and want an instantaneous reply to any message. We often accommodate them because delay feels like a violation of modern-day social norms.
But there are many times when we should not immediately reply. And the truth is, we usually know them when they come. That’s what that initial pause is about. The key is to heed it.
There is a simple two-step method to making the pause work for you. First, buy yourself some time to think. Second, follow the four simple C’s of effective communication that help determine how best to respond in terms of the context, content, channel, and contact.
There are a few practical ways to buy some time when you get a message where your gut tells you not to respond or where you are not sure how to respond.
- The non-response response – “Got your message.” This is meant to serve as an acknowledgement but really is only filler. It may aggravate someone in the midst of a negotiation or other serious exchange.
- The expectation-setter – “Got it. Lot on the plate today, I’ll get back to you tomorrow afternoon.” This is often a good middle ground. It provides an immediate response of acknowledgment and resets the timetable.
- The confident pause – Don’t respond. Really. Just don’t. Pausing for at least 24 hours is a pretty good rule of thumb. Not responding is its own kind of response, which can often work to your advantage.
Once you’ve bought yourself some time, you soak in the information from the message and think of what the best response might be. There are four C’s that have served as a useful checklist for me to use during that pause time before I respond to a difficult message: context, content, contact, and channel.
The Four C’s of Effective Communication
Context – Having the right situational context is key. Who are the relevant parties to the conversation or discussion thread? Are there relationships and inter-dependencies and previous conversations that I’m not aware of? Do I fully understand what is at stake? In the multi-party transactions in which we often get involved in venture capital, sending out a quick response to even a simple query can backfire if the timing is wrong or the information out of date. Sometimes you can even answer a specific question in a technically correct manner, but be practically incorrect because you’ve failed to appreciate the bigger picture.
Content – The message needs to be delivered in clear manner with the right tone and style for the occasion. Having the right content means checking facts and being consistent with past discussion threads. If there is one thing that I have seen kill a negotiation or productive progress in a discussion, it is inconsistency of message, which both confuses others and diminishes your credibility. Get the facts and your message points straight in your head, then focus on delivering them in the clearest, most understandable, most consistent manner possible.
Contact – Are you even the right person to respond? It happens often: we are asked something and fail to realize that we might not be the best person to respond. Consider if someone else might be more knowledgeable or better suited in style to respond, especially in a crisis (where it is usually best to have only a single point of contact). There is a reason why terrorist and hostage negotiations are not conducted over Google Docs. And even in an open and collaborative everyday work culture, there are many times when deferring to someone else is the right answer. Also, consider if the person on the other side who is asking a question or provoking a discussion is the right contact person as well. And always — always! — be wary of “reply all” and judicious with the cc function.
Channel – Just because someone contacts you by email or text does not mean you have to respond by that channel. Email and text lend themselves to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. They are often likelier to prolong or inflame a debate than to resolve it. Sometimes it’s much more effective and efficient just to pick up the phone or meet up in person. Email is great for transmitting factual information — a spreadsheet of a business model, for example, or a summary of a prior discussion. But when there are issues to resolve, talking usually works better.
As the pressure grows to respond quickly, the value of pausing and thinking is growing too. We all should work toward developing better, saner norms of communication amid the explosion of channels available to us. But that will take time and thought to get right. In the interim, we just need to stop being so damned trigger-happy with that send button.