Work is hard. That's why it's called work. But the plague of poor communication makes it harder than it needs to be.
In my previous post, I introduced the first of my three emails to combat fuzzy communication. I called it the Just To Confirm email. This email seeks to nail down aspects of what's already been communicated, (To read more about it, click here.)
By contrast, my second sanity-saving email seeks to fill in aspects that are missing.
The pace of the workday is increasingly frantic. The hours in the workday whiz by like the cars of a speeding commuter train. To save time, people shorten their messages. They clip meetings short, send terse emails, and use sloppy language. The result? Depending on your company's culture, the average workday might be full of situations where key facts are unstated, and more explanation is needed. A lot of us must then spend a good amount of our day running behind the train, trying to fill in the blanks in others' messaging in order to get our own work done.
When people must engage in puzzling and problem-solving just to figure out what is expected of them, it's a triple-whammy.
- Productivity suffers. Time is spent on buzz instead of business: "Did the boss mean x or y?" Frustration distorts a process that should be simple. Worry and indecision infiltrate the work stream, weighing down subsequent progress.
- Relationship suffers. As I declared in my previous post about Email #1: uncertainty feels like abuse. Every business has a hierarchy, and withholding information (even by accident) tends to be interpreted as a political power move. The energy wasted on office intrigue is substantial, and subversive to success. When this negative energy infects a project, it takes center stage, and people are so busy taking sides that they lose sight of the true objective.
- Wrong assumptions are made. This is the worst risk of all, since ambiguities can lead to assumptions that spur work in the wrong direction, wasting time, wreaking havoc, and requiring costly rework later on.
The risks posed by missing information are significant. So the smart thing to do is to get ahead of these risks, before they becomes a problem. How? Remember my motto from my previous post: the cure for fuzzy communication is focused communication. So get ready to communicate your confusion in a friendly and focused way that brings results.
The first step is to identify the gaps in the story that need to be filled in. Sometimes that's a skill in itself! (See my next blog post to learn about my favorite strategy for this.)
After you have determined exactly what information you need, identify who has the information, and craft a direct and respectful message to obtain it.
Email # 2: Just To Clarify
A Just To Clarify email is the message you'll send when you determine that a strategic knowledge gap exists. Like for Email # 1, the objective is better understanding.
The Magic of Email # 2
Before we talk about the email itself, let's begin with explaining the phrase we use to begin it.
When an email starts with the words "Just to clarify..." the reader will immediately know that strategic information is being sought. Also, and even more importantly, the phrase "Just to clarify..." establishes a breezy tone of collaboration, as opposed to a brittle tone of accusation. In the blame-rich atmosphere of most workplaces, setting this positive tone is vital for maintaining equilibrium and efficiency... and for getting a response. I cannot stress this enough. The fact is, many people read their emails looking for reasons to put off answering them. Never let your tone provide a convenient excuse for a non-response.
When you start with "Just to clarify...", you front-load your email for success. It creates the impression that you value what was said already, and are seeking to build on its value. So don't play around with that starting phrase. Always use it; you'll get optimal results, every time.
After those first three magic words, keep the rest of this email simple.
- State the topic right away.
- If not clear, include a reason why you need this information
- Keep questions short, focused, and direct.
- Include a deadline if there is one.
- Don't introduce other topics, argue other points, or overwhelm the reader with any other messages (send those in a separate email). Just request your info and bow out.
Sample Just To Clarify Email
Hi Peter, [breezy salutation that sets an informal tone]
Just to clarify re: the recent pigpen repairs: [header sentence that defines the topic and sets expectations]
I'm preparing a report for the Budget Committee and I need to know: [reason the info is needed]
- What is the invoice amount? [main question]
- Is the payment coming out of cost center 123?.[main question]
- If not, what cost center will be used?.[contingency question]
Hoping to hear from you by end of day so I can send my report in time for tomorrow's meeting. [deadline]
Thanks for your help as we work to provide the information the committee needs to close the books in time for the quarterly call, [closing sentence that includes a shared objective]
After you've composed your Just to Clarify email following this framework, simply press Send and wait. You have a very high likelihood of getting an answer by your deadline.
But what if the answer doesn't come? No problem! For that situation, you have my final email that will save your sanity:
Email # 3: Just Circling Back
You send a Just Circling Back email when you don't get a response by the deadline you specified in Email #1 or #2. It is a follow-up to your prior request for information. Its purpose is to keep your first email request from getting lost. To build this email, you add it as another message when you forward the first email to the recipient again.
The Just Circling Back email always follows the same brief but strategic format:
Sample Just Circling Back Email
Hi Peter, [breezy salutation that sets an informal tone]
Just circling back to see if you've had a chance to look into my budget questions about the recent pigpen repairs (see forwarded email below). [header sentence that defines the topic and sets expectations]
Would you be able to provide this info by 11:00 this morning? [deadline phrased as a question]
If not, I'll need to send my report without it. I'll let the committee know that this info is still to be determined. [closing sentence that includes a logical consequence]
Thanks again for your help, Priscilla
Thanks again for your help, Priscilla
The Magic of Email # 3
Just like the other two emails that save your sanity, Email # 3 is crafted very intentionally.
- It leads off with a very intentional phrase to set the right tone. When an email starts with the words "Just circling back..." the reader will immediately know that it's a follow-up communication. But obce more, there's a non-accusatory tone of collaboration. Judgment is entirely absent. Equilibrium is maintained. The recipient only has to give the info. No explanation for the delay is required. Can you see how this lightens the mood from the start?
- Likewise, when the deadline is restated in the form of a question, it gives the recipient a feeling of respect and empowerment, instead of guilt and embarrassment. There is no snarky subtext about dropping the ball, holding up the project, etc. It's just a simple, hey, can you get this to me in time?
- Finally, the Just Circling Back email contains a logical consequence for non-compliance. This is not a threat meant to frighten, or a manipulation meant to shame the person into action. It's just a simple neutral statement about what will need to happen if the information is not obtained by the deadline. The objective is plainly to keep pushing the project forward -- not to start a war.
The Just Circling Back email will help you gently help others accept responsibility for their contributions (or lack of contributions), as you maintain an appreciative and constructive tone. It frames the issue in a positive way. And in my experience, it usually elicits the same kind of response. You'll get your missing information, and the other person will continue to feel respected and valued.
Sanity Saved. Problems Prevented. Integrity Intact.
So to sum up: the Three Emails are your arsenal against the ambiguity of fuzzy messaging. One of them will usually be the answer for any communications shortfall that you experience. And all three will do much more than merely help you get the information you need to succeed. They will help you continue to build positive relationships among your colleagues, even when you need to hold them accountable for their fast, furious and fuzzy communications. The Three Emails position you for optimal collaboration by helping you avoid the blame game, keep projects politics-neutral, and underscore your positive intent to ensure success for everyone concerned.
Moreover, when you use them as part of an overall communications plan, the Three Emails will help build your reputation for excellence throughout your department, division, organization, and industry. I know that's a pretty big claim. How can I make it? Because I diligently use them -- and that's exactly the reputation that I have with all my professional relationships, past and present. Just saying!
Are any fuzzy communication issues lurking in your current project portfolio? I challenge you to use the Three Emails on exactly those issues during your upcoming week. See if they help you "Just to Confirm" and/or "Clarify" the knowledge gaps that threaten to torpedo your To Do list. And, when you reap the results of your focused messaging, I suggest that you "Just Circle Back" and leave a comment below to share your success!