How many times have you written up what seems like a perfectly clear email message only to find that the person on the receiving end just doesn’t “get it”? Not only is it annoying, it can end up wasting a lot of time for both parties.
Beyond the obvious need for a sarcasm font, here’s what could be going on: You likely communicate in a style that’s rooted in the way you prefer to think. The problem is, that can be at odds with the preferences of the person you’re communicating with. You may prefer formal, sequential, highly organized thinking, and so your email messages will follow suit. Your recipient, on the other hand, may prefer a more casual, free-flowing style. They’re looking for the big picture, and when they see all that detail, they tune out.
Or maybe you gravitate toward a more expressive style. You would never just jump right into the cold, dry facts without a few pleasantries up front. Meanwhile, your recipient might be rolling their eyes, wondering why you can’t just get to the point.
Considering how much we rely on email today, it makes sense to find some common ground and learn how to adapt your thinking and your messages—both so you can be heard and so you can avoid confusion or miscommunication.
Now, you might be saying, what am I, a mind reader? It’s true that you don’t always know the preferences of the person you’re communicating with. But you can pick up some clues from their messages and other interactions you’ve had. Below are some questions to help you do a little detective work. Each letter corresponds with a specific thinking preference.
Does this person...
A. tend to be clear and precise, using facts, numbers, logic or technical information in their communications? Would you describe them as a “just the facts” kind of person?
B. focus on the details and present things in a sequential order, careful to follow established rules and procedures? Are there specific dates, times, locations and step-by-step explanations in the messages?
C. use expressive, friendly language and like to give and receive feedback and input? Do they typically engage in a little personal chit-chat before getting down to business?
D. get inspired and excited about new ideas, and get bored when there’s “too much” detail? Do they like to look at the big picture and use images and descriptive or playful language and metaphors?
Once you start paying attention to these kinds of clues, you’ll find that you can adapt your email communications to meet the recipient “where they think.” It’s a little work upfront, but in the long run, it saves a lot of time and energy.
Here’s the caveat: Even though there are four distinct thinking preference patterns, many people have preferences for more than one (and some people have a fairly balanced preference for all four). So you need to be careful about making assumptions. Taking an assessment like the HBDI is the best way to learn what your own preferences are, and then you and your colleagues can share this information to cut out the guesswork.
But you don’t always have that opportunity, particularly when you’re communicating with people externally, like a potential client, for example, or if you’re sending a message to a group of people. In these cases, your failsafe strategy is to use a “Whole Brain ®” approach. It ensures that you’ve covered all the “languages” of the brain.
In any situation, being more intentional about how you communicate is key. Whether you're writing to your colleague to add an agenda item to tomorrow's meeting or to the entire team about a high-impact process change, think about the following questions to improve email communication:
- Take a look through your previous emails (and other forms of communication, like presentations, reports, text messages, even voicemails) to evaluate how you communicate in the context of thinking. Do you see any patterns?
- What does this reveal about how you communicate with others?
- Who do you typically run into trouble with in terms of getting your point across? Can you find any clues about their thinking that might suggest where the disconnect is happening?
- What changes could you make to improve your impact with those who think like you, those who think differently than you and with diverse groups?
Start with the people you regularly have email exchanges with—your boss, your team members, your employees, clients or others—and identify some specific ways you could tailor your messages to be a more effective communicator.
And remember, this isn’t just for email! The way you communicate, both written and verbal, ultimately affects the results you get. So be more aware of your go-to style, and then ask yourself: If that’s the style I’m using for every audience, is it really serving my purpose?