Personal effectiveness

Email communication: Discover the one guiding principle that governs how to email well

“Email communication” is a bit of a misnomer. It is not possible to communicate well over email. Communication is a two-way exchange of information, and email is a series of uni-directional messages. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that because you get or give a response, that you’re “communicating.” That is not necessarily the case. How many of us have experienced confusion or frustration due to a series of emails that could have easily been resolved or escalation avoided by just exchanging information live?

So why do we persist in using email as the primary mode of what we feel is two-way communication, despite its intensive time-suck, its dangers and limitations, and the sheer unnecessary volume? Why do we keep using it for everything?

There are three reasons, and I’m going to dispel them, one at a time:

  1. It feels like the easiest mode of contact. We’re at our computers already. Email is usually perpetually open.
    • I will concede this point. Easy is easy, but easy is not best.
  2. It feels efficient. A few mouse clicks, and we’re checking things off of our to-do lists.
    • The efficiency of email is probably the biggest little myth in the workplace. Beware that when you are responding to emails in rapid fire and feeling awesome about checking things off your list, you are only tasking, and not resolving. Two-way communication is the way to truly resolve outstanding issues. Responding to emails on issues is often just kicking the can down the road.
  3. It feels safer. Email provides a cushion, whether of time or distance, against negative reaction and in-depth follow-up that is going to have to be dealt with at some point. Hello, passive aggressive behavior!
    • Let’s face it: email can create a buffer for us. All I can say is: get the courage to address issues head on.

If we are truly willing to use email appropriately, and not use it as a crutch under the artificial conditions above, then the one principle you should use to determine whether to open up an email, whether to copy someone on an email, or what to say in an email is this: Use email only when you need to impart information, not have an exchange of information. This means that any email you send technically would not need a response from the other party.

If you want to have that communication, two-way, then it should be live. It’s not a good idea to leave communication of actual, new information to an email where you naturally expect a response that could further the conversation.

Oooooh, I can already feel all the but-but-buts and the no-ways and the that’s-totally-unreasonables feeding back through the interwebs on this one.


You can use email to either set up a two-way communication, or confirm/reinforce the results of a two-way communication after the fact.

Let me tackle the questions and objections that most commonly arise as a result of this principle:

What if I need to get something to the other party ASAP? Maybe it’s the middle of the night, and I can’t sit on the info.

This is a set-up email situation. You give them the facts of the situation via email and set up a call to delve into details, answer questions, make decisions jointly, or otherwise have two-way communication.

I need to copy my manager on communications.

This is either a set-up email situation, or confirmation email situation (or preferably, both). But I’ve never known a manager who likes being copied on the 25 individual emails going back and forth among team members where the manager doesn’t really need that level of visibility.

Think about WHY you need to copy them, and let that drive your email decision. As an alternative to the annoying default-copy action, you can do an email set up, as in, “FYI we’re going to take this discussion offline and provide a status update at the end of the day,” and/or a confirmation, as in, “FYI, an issue came up, we resolved it, and here is the conclusion/ status….”

I can’t always have live conversations with people. I’ll get voicemail most of the time.

Fair. Then you still use email only as a set up, along the lines of, “I want to let you know that ____. I will give you a call to discuss in more detail, since you might have questions.” Then leave the voicemail and invite them to continue to conversation. After you have the conversation, a brief email will suffice to confirm what was discussed or decided.

But my customers WANT information via email.

Of course they do. You will impart information via email. You just will not have a back and forth exchange about it. Where exchange information is required, you will have a set-up email before actual engaged conversations occur and reinforcement emails afterward.

This wouldn’t work for everyone.

Agreed. The micromanager will want to see every email. The needy customer will insist on communication via email instead of the phone so they can “multi-task.” That passive aggressive coworker will not follow your lead on effective use of email.

But even if you implemented this one guiding principle for email, and no one else did, how much would you gain? How much time and focus can you save? Fifty percent? Thirty percent? Would even 20% more efficiency be worth it?

I bet it would.

I’m not suggesting abandoning “email communication” altogether. That’s not possible.

But learn when to use it well with customers, colleagues, and managers, and you’ll discover two things. (1) You’ll see better, more fruitful relationships develop, and (2) you’ll actually become more efficient.



You might also like:

Expertise vs experience: Knowing the difference is how you further your career efficiently

Know the difference between being responsible and being accountable

Did you like this post? Please share! If you want more insights and tools to help you manage work and life a little better – new ways of thinking, rather than just doing – then join the email list on the very top bar of this page. I can’t wait to show you more ways to live and work more fully!

Come on! Tell us what you're thinking.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.