Anyone who regularly uses email to communicate with co-workers or other professional contacts has probably noticed that, despite its many positives, email can also be incredibly inefficient.
Think about it: How many times have you volleyed a half-dozen messages with a co-worker over the course of two days just to schedule a meeting? How many hours of your life have you wasted trying to decipher messages missing one key word? And how many tasks did you interrupt today alone so you could respond to a note that just arrived in your inbox? When you consider how many issues email can pose - and how many of your nonprofit's staff members use it to communicate on a daily basis - you can begin to see just how much this tool can actually hinder your organization's ability to get things done.
The good news is that you can get back to a state of efficiency without giving up email altogether; you just have to get rid of some bad email habits - and convince your co-workers to do the same.
1. Don't make any assumptions about the sender's emotional state.
Unless the sender actually spells out the fact that he or she is angry with you, don't assume that the person intended to send a rude response - you just don't know for sure. Most people aren't great writers, so it's possible that the sender didn't realize how his message would sound when read by another person. He may even have been trying to make a joke by being sarcastic, a feat few people can actually pull off in writing.
If you receive an email that really makes your heart skip a beat when you read it, try walking away from the message and re-reading it later before you respond. See if there's any other possible way to interpret the note; you may even want to ask someone else to take a look at the message and offer her impressions.
2. Don't escalate a conflict by sending an emotionally charged response.
If you do decide that the sender intended to send you a rude email, don't make the problem worse by sending an equally charged response. Doing so may start a vicious cycle of nasty emails - after all, it's easy to hide behind your computer and fire off angry messages that say things you probably wouldn't say in person. Pick up the phone or set up an in-person meeting, and you'll likely have an easier time getting to the bottom of the issue and resolving the conflict.
Good: Can we schedule a quick, face-to-face meeting or phone call to discuss this?
Bad: Oh yeah? Well, I guess I'll just have to burn the building down then.
3. Ask for clarification.
If you receive an email that doesn't quite make sense - with confusing grammar or no punctuation, for example - ask the sender to clarify. It's a whole lot faster to ask for clarification than it is to re-read a message four times, ask everyone for their opinions on what it means, and send back a response that doesn't address the sender's point. While you can ask for more information by replying to the email, getting clarification over the phone or in person might be an even quicker way to get answers to your questions.
4. Use your email software's built-in tools to help organize messages.
Some email clients - including Microsoft Outlook - allow you to set up rules that help organize incoming messages, making it easier to quickly locate particular messages and keep your inbox from becoming needlessly bloated.
Want to make sure you never overlook a key email from your director? If you're using Outlook 2003, the "Organizing Using Colors" feature can automatically highlight her emails with bold red subject lines. You can also organize messages from your boss or other important contacts by assigning colored flags to senders.
If, on the other hand, you're having trouble keeping up with all the messages from an email list you've subscribed to, you can set up an Outlook filter that automatically moves messages from that list into a separate folder, keeping them from cluttering your inbox.
5. Remember: You don't have to respond to every message right away.
Unless you are being paid solely to send and receive emails, it's a pretty good bet that you have other, more pressing tasks to devote your attention to. As a final piece of advice, don't forget to give yourself permission to periodically turn away from your inbox so you can take some time to finish other activities.