In my work as a curriculum designer, I am frequently expected to do something with the content of a document that is unclear, incomplete, or ill considered.
My immediate reaction is to write an email asking one or more questions to obtain clarification and/or additional information, or prompt reconsideration. At the time, I believe that I only have one question to ask. This may be because I am an unrealistic optimist. (Is that redundant?)
As I read further into a document, I write another email each time I have another question. It never occurs to me to wait until I have closely read through the entire document before sending one email with all my questions.
One explanation for my sense of urgency is that there is typically a tight deadline. Irrationally, I believe that the sooner I ask the question, the sooner I'll get a response.
However, since I do much of my work in the very late evening on weekends, the truth of the matter is that no one will read the email for at least a day or more.
I'm embarrassed to admit that a client may receive a flurry of emails, each asking new questions. The subject line of the first email may be: Clarification Requested or One Question. The subject line of the second email may be: Another Question. The subject line of the third email may be: Yet Another Question. I'm sure you get the picture.
I often apologize for sending each subsequent email. Surprisingly, to date no client has ever complained, or if they have complained, it wasn't directed to me.
There are at least three major drawbacks to my current approach to asking questions in consecutive emails.
First, my clients tend to only respond to the last email I send. They are probably not accustomed to receiving email in bulk from the same person on the same day. As result, it doesn't occur to them that they should read any of the earlier emails in the thread. This leaves me hanging as I wait for answers to the questions posed in the earlier emails.
There is a second drawback to immediately sending a question before I've read the entire document. The answer to my question may be right there in the document, but I haven't read that far. If I find the answer in the document, then I have to send another email stating a retraction of the questions in my previous email(s).
The third drawback is that I get impatient with my clients when they don't respond to all my questions (since they didn't realize there were earlier emails with other questions). I either resend the original emails with Follow Up on the subject line or I send an email with all the questions finally in one place. My client's inbox gets cluttered with more of my emails and I'm faced with an unnecessary delay in getting the answers I need.
Having admitted all of this, it is now clear to me that my habitual approach to email doesn't work out very well, either for me or for my clients. (Why it has taken me so long to realize this is another good question without an immediate answer. Feel free to provide one if you can.)
Obviously, I need to be much more patient and pace myself. I should take the time to thoroughly read a document, jotting down my questions and checking for answers to those questions as I read. Only then should I send one email with all the questions that still need to be answered.
I also need to lose my sense of urgency, or at least temper it a bit. After all, no matter when I send the email, if it happens to be on a weekend, my message is just going to sit in an inbox until Monday.
Am I alone in this or does someone else out there do the same thing?
Deborah Spring Laurel is the President of Laurel and Associates, Ltd., a certified woman-owned small business that builds and strengthens managerial, employee development and technical skills through the design and delivery of participatory classroom training on a national and international basis.
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