Skillful Email: A Makeshift Guide

A caveat: while I’ve been been on email since around 1989 and honing my skills in both email and communication for much of that time, I’ve never found any guidance on the Web that’s helped me cope with long-term email anxiety.  I know I’m far from alone in needing such help.  In this modern world, plagued by hate-speech and the like, it seems a necessary gap to fill.  So I’m plunging in and creating an email guide, but I’m doing it on the fly. Hence “makeshift” and why some parts of the below are glaringly incomplete. My hope is in time I can eliminate the word makeshift.

Listed roughly in order of urgency:

Opening Email

  • As I open my email client, I use the few seconds it takes to collect myself and recall the humanity that lurks behind this impersonal facade. For example, as it’s pulling up, I might close my eyes, take a deep breath or two, and recite a gatha I’ve made up based on the work of Thich Nhat Hanh. “Turning to email, I pause. I vow to center in respect, care, and (when needed) compassion towards myself and all whose emails are in my inbox today.”
  • I have a crib-sheet on hand to help me recall options when under fire.  I’m currently using Inbal Kashtan’s The NVC Tree of Life.

Coping with Charged Emails

  • When receiving an email that evokes strong negative emotions (dread, anger, animosity, shame, and so on), I never, ever reply in kind. It’s often tempting to hurry, but I try not to do this either.
  • It’s important to pause as long as I need, offering at least empathy to myself and hopefully to the other person too.
  • If there’s time, I do a formal Nonviolent Communication practice.
  • Once I’ve adequately processed the triggering email, I decide if and how to respond in a way that’s helpful to all. Often it’s with the suggestion to talk on the phone.  Second most common is to not reply at all.
  • For people who repeatedly send difficult emails, I back as far away from them as I can.
  • Note: there’s a fine line to walk when returning emails from people who have abused their power over you, but I’ve learned that it is possible to both hold them with care and hold them accountable.

When Failing To Use Email Skillfully

Create a restorative practice that works for you.  Here’s mine:

  • If it seems unlikely to have done any harm, I journal about it in an effort to learn from my mistakes.  If relevant, I update this guide accordingly.
  • If it seems likely to have done harm (e.g., upset the recipient), I apologize, commit to not making the same mistake again, and, if needs be, make amends.

General Strategies for Sending Email

  • As with responding to difficult email, these days I never initiate an email that might be harmful to the recipient.
  • I ask myself:
    • Does this email I’m about to send connect or sever connection?
    • Is it helpful?
  • Because most people are busy, I am as brief as possible (without sacrificing connection and helpfulness).
  • I use great care with reply all and group emails.  At a minimum, the risk with group emails is unnecessarily cluttering the inboxes of others, if not pushing an agenda or trying to get in the last word.
  • I don’t forward on chain emails.

Sorting Through Emails

This is my personal practice.  In my experience, this is the least urgent aspect of using email skillfully.  I offer it in case it’s helpful to some of you.

  • Quickly clear out all of the emails in my inbox without responding to any. Sort each into one of the following categories:
    1. Delete.
    2. For unwanted marketing, unsubscribe or set up a filter so that email address never lands in my inbox again.
    3. Archive without responding.
    4. Star it to get back to later.
    5. Label it “Top Priority.”
  • Once a day, go through “Top Priority”; respond in a timely fashion.
  • Once a week go through starred emails and clean out as many as I have time for.  Don’t be a perfectionist! That way madness lies.

Practices That Enhance Email Skills

Least urgent, but arguably most important, there are two practices I do regularly that have made a profound difference in how I cope with difficult emails and email anxiety in general.

  1. Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is in my experience the single best practice to improve email skills.  While there is nothing on the Web (until now) that links the two, once you’ve done NVC for a few weeks, its relevance will become clear.

    How do you practice NVC?  If you can find an NVC practice group in your area and if you have an affinity for the group, that’s the most effective in my experience.  Alternatively, using the book you can create your own group. It doesn’t take a lot of people.

  2. Meditation practices are all about seeing who you really are — what your potential is.  While the benefits in re. email are nowhere near as direct as those of NVC, long term meditation helps in the most critical areas of life.  If I only had time to do one practice, it would be meditation, not NVC.

A third possibility is the RAIN practice.  However, I’m not as familiar with it, so can’t speak from personal experience in how effective it is at addressing email anxiety.

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