5 tips to prevent misunderstandings and set expectations Headway/Unsplash
An email can work for you or against you.
You would think there’s no way it could go wrong, not when you’ve put everything in writing — and yet, how many times is something “lost in translation”?
In our everyday lives, we prefer to jump on a phone call or chat face-to-face when we have something important to share. But we don’t always have that luxury at work. And with remote work on the rise, email communication is even more critical.
I’m not claiming to be an email wizard. But I’ve been taught how to communicate clearly and set expectations via email. Sometimes it’s as simple as rephrasing your closing statement, or attaching a deadline to your request — strategies few people use but have been instrumental for me in preventing miscommunication.
These are my tips (simple tweaks!) for optimizing your email communication at work:
1. Reduce the back and forth
Is there a way to structure your message, so it doesn’t require a response?
If you’re sending an informational email — a courtesy message to someone like a boss or coworker to keep them in the loop — don’t ask for permission when you don’t need it.
Unless you were operating in a silo, your team knows you were working on the project and were likely involved in any decisions regarding the next steps. At this point, you’re simply following through.
DON’T: “Do I have your signoff to move forward?” or “Let me know if this looks good to you.”
DO: “I plan to send this over to the client this afternoon unless I hear otherwise from you.”
I am not suggesting you go over anyone’s head. But think about ways to rephrase a question as a statement, so the other party doesn’t feel obligated to respond. (And, bonus, you’re not sitting around waiting for their reply to take your next step.)
The simple caveat “unless I hear otherwise from you” allows the other party to correct you if there’s a problem.
Similarly, when you schedule a meeting, include 2–3 suggested dates and times in your initial email. Share your availability upfront to avoid the back and forth that the typical “let me know what works for you” entails.
2. Establish a deadline for the other party
When you need something from someone else, give them a deadline. Something like, “Please let me know if you can’t get this back to me by Friday.”
This is not about telling someone what to do — it’s about transparency and setting expectations.
DON’T: “I’ll keep an eye out for that document,” or “If you could get this to me by the end of the day, I’d appreciate it.”
DO: “Please let me know by noon if you can’t get this done by the end of the day. I don’t want to bug you all afternoon!”
Remember your family road trips, and you’re in the backseat asking, “Are we there yet?” every 5 minutes.
That’s how you’ll feel when you’re waiting for a response. You send your first follow-up email: “Hey, just checking in…” And then another, slightly panicky, follow-up the day later, “Have you had an opportunity to glance over that document I sent…?” (We’ve all been there.)
So put the ball in their court. Allow them to speak up if your expectations are unreasonable.
Otherwise, you’ll never know if there’s a disparity in expectations. You think that end of the week is reasonable, but your client assumes Monday or Tuesday of the following week is OK.
And there’s a way to do this without coming across as demanding or rude. Add an informal explanation, like, “…so I won’t bug you before then!”
Part 2 is to set a reminder to follow up if you don’t hear back from this person within the timeframe you’ve established. If Friday rolls around and there’s nothing from them in your inbox, you need to reach out that same afternoon or evening, or first thing on Monday.
Unfortunately, setting expectations isn’t enough to ensure that other people will meet them. (They likely won’t.) It’s an opportunity for you to build credibility (you do what you say you will; you follow up if you haven’t received the info you need) and train others to do things on time.
3. Give a timeframe in which you’ll deliver
If someone needs something from you, let them know when they can expect to receive it. If you can’t get to it right away, acknowledge their request and give them a timeframe for your response.
For example, “I’m working on that for you, and I’ll have an update by the end of the week.”
I’ve touched on this in another article. You may be tempted to “wait” to respond to an email if you don’t have all the answers. But you don’t need all the information to send an acknowledgment of receipt and buy yourself more time.
DON’T: “I’ll get that to you soon.”
DO: “I’ll send it over to you by tomorrow afternoon.”
Of course, the other half of the equation is to follow through on your word. Set prompts or reminders for yourself, so you don’t forget to meet the deadline you’ve put in place.
But remember, the deadline you’ve set for yourself is not set in stone. If you realize you can’t meet it, let them know as far in advance as possible, and choose a new, more reasonable deadline.
4. Restate the decision or plan of action
Email is great because it allows you to put everything in writing. There’s an email chain to point back to, a timestamp, and record of each step taken along the way.
If you’ve come out of a meeting or phone call, send an email (or respond to an existing thread) to restate or summarize the action plan.
If your client or coworker asks a question via email, make a habit of restating their request when you respond. In these examples, summarizing in your own words is a great way to confirm your understanding of the task.
DON’T: “Sure, I’ll get that done.”
DO: “Sure, I’ll have our web developer replace the address on your About page.”
5. Write easy-to-scan emails
Our attention span is short. People don’t have all day to read long-winded emails.
There is nothing worse than opening an email filled with long blocks of text; your stomach drops, and you break out into a cold sweat.
The font is so tiny, and the words blur on the screen. You realize you should take so-and-so’s advice and buy a pair of blue light glasses. But it might be too late — you’ll probably damage your eyesight reading this novel of an email.
OK, so I exaggerate. But you get the point.
DON’T: Paragraphs of text; action items or important info buried at the end of the email
DO: Important info at the top; bullet points to break up the text
Email is about brevity. Use bullet points to summarize action items and give important info upfront. If I’ve written something essential in an email, I’ll go so far as to bold or highlight the text.
I’m not trying to be patronizing; I’m simply trying to draw the reader’s eye to the most important information. Even if they skim the rest, it’s unlikely they’ll miss the part I’ve formatted to stand out.
While these may seem like minor tweaks, the potential time savings add up. If you could save just 15 minutes a day with less back and forth or fewer miscommunications, you save an hour each week. That hour adds up to over a week of saved time in one year.
So, to summarize:
- Reduce the back and forth with messages that don’t require a response.
- Establish an expected deadline when delegating tasks.
- Be clear about when you’ll respond or deliver.
- Restate the question or decision in your email to clarify action items.
- Use bullet points and short paragraphs to make your emails easy to scan.
With these simple but powerful strategies, you prevent misunderstandings and clearly communicate your expectations, which, in turn, helps you get what you need when you need it.