Read the email. Don’t read into the email.

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Years ago, I received an email from a CEO written entirely in all capital letters. I can’t remember the content of the message but I do remember wondering what I had done to warrant being “screamed at” via email. I sat frozen in my office, unsure of how to respond until I finally decided to walk to the CEO’s office to make sure it wasn’t a miscommunication. It turns out, he had accidentally turned on his caps lock and was in a hurry, so the email CAME OUT LIKE THIS without any passive aggressive, ulterior motive. I was glad I sought him out directly and, as it turns out, he was too because he wasn’t yelling and he wanted to be sure I understood his message.

So why the retelling of what I thought was “generational differences” in email communication? Because I see and feel this happening again, especially now when teams who used to be in the same building are working in separate spaces.

Email doesn’t convey emotion

Remember when all anyone did was email each other? There was no instant messaging (or it was limited) and certainly no texting. People would rather hide behind monitors than pick up their phone. Emails became lengthy as a result and I remember working hard to turn my email essay into 2-3 bullet points with a bold call to action for team members.

It seems with social media, especially video and live streaming, we lost the need for email communications. It wasn’t gone but it wasn’t our number one means of communication any longer. After all, with video you can sense how someone is feeling and connect with them in a way that is difficult (if not impossible) to do with words alone.

The biggest problem I had with email in 2005 was that simple requests, even those followed with a “thank you” or preceded with a “please,” could be interpreted as demands. Check-ins became micromanaging opportunities. And questions meant someone didn’t think I could do the job. Fast forward to 2020, and I’m finding myself “interpreting” messages because they are often all I have and, as a result, I’m developing a story behind the message that just isn’t true.

Stop Jumping to Conclusions

As email recipients we need to keep several key factors in mind each time we check our inbox:

  1. Everyone is trying to do the very best they can right now.
  2. This isn’t a test to see if you are at your desk every minute of every day.
  3. Not every message requires an immediate reaction or response.

First and foremost, we need to give ourselves and all our colleagues some grace. Email and messaging platforms like Teams or Gchat have replaced in-person questions. You know, the kind you pop by someone’s desk or door with in passing to get a cup of coffee. And if you’re experiencing an influx in messages it’s likely because those are the types of questions or comments you would have normally gotten in-person prior to COVID-19.

Second, when you are busy helping your children with elearning or even taking the dog out for a walk and receive an email, it’s OK not to read the message right now. People aren’t waiting for you to leave your desk before sending messages so they can catch you “not working.” They are likely reaching out at those moments because they just returned to their desk or kitchen table after doing the very same thing you are currently busy with.

Which leads me to my third point, not every message is a high priority. Last weekend, one of our consultants messaged me on a Saturday morning. I happened to see it and responded quickly because I wanted them to know I saw it and I would get to it for them later that day. Their response? “Oh my goodness. Don’t worry about this over the weekend. It can wait. Go have some pancakes with your family!”

Seek clarity first

Before you let your imagination run wild with what ifs, take a step back and look at the message for what it is. What does the sender need? What are they looking for? Can you help them?

If there’s any confusion over why they need something or why they are reaching out to you, then you need to seek clarity from the sender directly. Normally, I’d recommend a face-to-face conversation but due to the current state of business in America, a phone call will suffice — and a video call is preferable.

But before hopping on the phone, write out what’s confusing you or what you are struggling with. Take a minute to gather your thoughts (and take a breath) before jumping all over someone because they asked for a new one-pager or an edit to the website.

Then, call them and be honest. The conversation may go something like this,

Hi. I received your email and wanted to make sure I understood your question/request before responding. Could you walk me through what’s going on so I have a bit more context?

Hopefully, by talking directly to one another, any miscommunication can be corrected.

Dig deeper into your anxiety

Now, the not-so-easy part: Ask yourself why you’re letting your anxiety or uncertainty get the better of you.

I’ve personally found that I tend to make up stories [in my head] as to why someone asked for assistance with something because I’m either not entirely sure what they’re looking for or I’m scared that I missed something. My uncertainty or lack of confidence fuels my insecurities.

So, to try and prevent this from getting the best of me, I often share with people that fear directly and potentially as part of the above conversation. It could come out like this,

I’m so glad I called you to get more information. I was worried I had missed something or inadvertently let you down.

In my experience, this level of transparency helps develop empathy between colleagues (peers, managers and direct reports). And, it can help prevent the same potential miscommunication from happening again in the future.

Do the Best you can with what you have

I wish I could tell you this will all get better soon and we’ll be back in our offices together in no time. But I can’t. And, this new normal for all of us could become the norm for many long-term. Many organizations are discovering their teams are productive while working remotely, which could impact company policies long after COVID-19. And, as far as I know, email isn’t going anywhere. It’s still going to be one of our main forms of communication and likely the easy choice for many well into the future. So, we all need to do the best we can with what we have.

Between Zoom conferences, FaceTime check-ins, text messages, messaging, phone calls, and emails, we have more tools than ever before to stay in touch. The onus is on each of us to learn which tools work best for our communication style and then share those preferences with coworkers.


If your organization utilizes the Behavioral Assessment from The Predictive Index, you’ll enjoy this blog post on how your team will likely adjust to a remote work setting based upon their highest drives.