PM Articles > Geof Lory > Did You CYA in That Email?

Did You CYA in That Email?

by Geof Lory

If I've read one article, book or blog about how important good communication is to the success of a project I've read a thousand. No one would ever deny the importance of effective communication, yet overall, most projects at some point suffer from lack of communications more than from insufficient technical skills. Personal baggage, assumptions, ambiguity, cultural differences, poor mediums and a general lack of disciplined practice all combine to thwart even our best efforts to communicate effectively.

It's challenging enough to communicate effectively face-to-face, but for most teams, especially those not co-located, the most common form of communication is digital. Emails, tweets, blogs, IMs, and texts all employ a medium that exacerbates our poor communication habits because the other senses that can gauge the tone and intention are absent or assumed. Smiley faces and other emoticons can help convey an attitude, affirm an intention, or at least imply some levity, but they are not the real thing.

If you are like me, you probably spend a fair portion of your day in email. But email is not the most robust communication medium. It cannot communicate body language or tone of voice, and it is slow and one way. Even for the fastest typists, it doesn't flow like interactive dialogue.

But, when it comes to written communication there is a difference between fast and brief. A quote commonly attributed to Mark Twain says, "I would have written less, if I had more time." It takes time to write effective communication, and time, or lack of it, is the primary cause of many miscommunications. So, when I have an email I want to make sure is received exactly as I want it to be received, I think DIE: Deliberate, Intentional, and Explicit.

While this acronym is not limited to email or other writing, I find it is easier to create the disciplines if you first practice them in email. Written mediums have an inherently a slower pace, allowing for time to build the habits.

Deliberate

Being deliberate means slowing down, being thoughtful or measured. I know I am deliberate when I think about the message I want to convey before I start to type. I become more careful with my choice of words and conscious of the way the message could be received. Doing this helps me see where the communication could break down and prompts me to think about how to preempt the miscommunication with greater clarity. Being deliberate also forces me to be conscious of my intention.

Intentional

While a close cousin to deliberation, intention implies a higher level of premeditation. In addition to being intentional in my thinking, I am deliberate with my intentions. I don't leave my intentions to be assumed or surmised; I write them down. I lead with them, front and center, and often use smiley faces and other emoticons, if appropriate, to convey and reinforce my intentions.

It is not unusual for me to start an email with the phrase, "I want to be clear about my intention in responding to ..." or "My intention is not to alarm you, but rather to just inform you ... :)". I specifically use the words "my intention" as opposed to "I want to" because I believe it better conveys the desire of the dialogue instead of my selfish wishes. "My intention" is a signal that sets the tone for the conversation to follow.

Explicit

Explicit is about leaving nothing implied, assumed, or ambiguous. It's about talking straight and clear, leaving little room for misinterpretation. It is easier to be explicit if you have already deliberately framed the communication through your intention. Words become focused and less subjective when the stage of intention has been deliberately set. The words can now paint the explicit picture in detail within the boundaries framed by the intention.

So, when I think of being explicit, I think of another acronym, CYA. Not the CYA you are probably thinking of. Here, CYA stands for Check Your Assumptions. What am I taking for granted about the recipient? What do I think they already know and am I being completely unequivocal?

DIE and CYA in Practice

DIE and CYA are cute TLAs, but how do they look in practice? Several articles ago, I wrote about Speaking in Absolutes: eliminating use of judgment or hyperbole through words like "should" or "always" because they can inflame the conversation and create unintended negativity. I have a similar aversion to pronouns, especially indefinite pronouns, which can lead to unintended ambiguity and misinterpretation.

By definition, pronouns are substitutes or shorthand for something else in the sentence or paragraph. However, the improper use of these substitutes can lead to confusion. So, I make it a habit to try to reduce the use of these words in my emails. Of course, I don't completely eliminate them (pronouns, that is), as the complete elimination of any pronouns would make every sentence as awkward and repetitive as this sentence.

But I think in general we become lazy in our writing, and using indefinite references like they, someone, most, and so on supports that laziness and can lead to faulty assumptions and miscommunication. It's a good habit to Check Your Assumptions when you use any wording that could just as easily be clarified. You will be amazed at how much confusion it avoids, though you may never really know. You just won't have to deal with as many misunderstandings.

I challenge you to take even a short email and review it to check your assumptions just around the use of indefinite pronouns. See if the sentence is clearer if you replace the pronoun with the person's name or with exactly what you are referencing. Doing this may take a little more time, but I assure you the time it saves will be recouped in the time not spent clarifying later.

I know I can be annoying (that is a nice version of the words my wife uses) when I ask people to clarify their references to unspecific objects, places or people in my reply emails. It is a quirky little habit I have. However, I appreciate kind reminders when someone catches me getting lazy and using fuzzy language. I know my communication is not always as perfect as I want it to be.

So, the next time you read or write something like, "They want to take care of that while they are there," you may want to CYA. I wouldn't have a clue what you intended, and I just might ask you to explain. :)




Comments
Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Very informative article. Your points are on target and I for one am sharing with my co-workers and friends.


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