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The Art of Listening to an E-mail

I had the opportunity to deliver a presentation focused on how to drive career success at a treasury and finance conference last week. One of the key components I identified for everyone to have in his or her toolbox for career success is effective communication.  I highlighted the importance of developing and leveraging the skill of listening. Since the conference I have been pondering if there is something to be said for the concept of effectively listening to an e-mail.  The conclusion I have reached is that the answer is a resounding “yes”.

Given the amount of e-mail we consume on a daily basis and my first-hand experience relative to the damage e-mail miscommunication can cause, I can state without hesitation or reservation; the ability to listen effectively to an e-mail can be a career asset, and that the inability to effectively listen to an e-mail can negatively impact or derail a career.

The following maps 7 keys to effective listening, courtesy of an article, The 10 Principles of Listening published on the Skills You Need website, to my own e-mail listening best practices:

 Effective In-    person  Listening  Practices  Effective E-mail Listening Practices
 Stop Talking

 Control your instincts to write a response to an e-mail before you even finish  reading it in its entirety.

 Remove      Distractions  Do not multi-task when reading work related e-mails.

 If an e-mail outlines a problem or issue that requires your  assistance do  not  respond by pointing a finger of blame in your  response.  Put yourself  in the          e-mail author’s shoes. Ask questions  to learn how you can best resolve the issue  at  hand  and then look  to discover the root  cause.  Putting someone at ease  often seems  to empower them to  solve the  problem or issue  they are  presenting to you.


  Be Patient        

 If you are looking for an answer in an e-mail and it does not contain  the answer  you were looking for then do not assume your request  was ignored and respond  with a negative tone. Take a breath and  read it  again as it may have the answer  which  you did not identify in your   initial read. If not, ask a question in your  response  that confirms  that they  understand what you were looking for in an      e-mail from  them.

 Avoid Personal  Prejudice

 Do not pre-judge the importance of a work related e-mail solely  based on its  author.

 Listen to the  Tone

 Read each e-mail carefully, and read between the lines to sense  the tone being  communicated, is it angry, urgent, humorous, etc.?  Never respond to an e-mail  in anger, especially to one that has an  angry tone.

 Watch  for Non-Verbal  Communication

 Look for what is not said in addition to what is said in an e-mail. Sometimes what is not said is as important as what is said.


Of course, I must share my own GOLDEN RULE OF E-MAIL LISTENING: Any time you receive an e-mail which evokes a strong emotional response from you, wait at least 30 minutes to respond (if you can), and get a trusted colleague to read your response to make sure your response has the right tone and content.

I hope this blog is the beginning of a conversation around best practices in how to “listen” and react effectively to an e-mail.


Len Green
Title: Performance Improvement Consultant and E..
Company: Haygarth Consulting LLC
LinkedIn Profile
(Performance Improvement Consultant and ERP Strategist, Haygarth Consulting LLC) |

Nice thread!

I'd like to add one suggestion for starters:
1. Don't email when you should talk to the other person. The value of interactive live communication can often avoid misunderstandings etc. The tone of the email you write to me is determined by me, not by you; the way I read what you typed is what I think you mean, not what you think you mean.

(Associate) |

I agree that often times we should talk in person because of the tone misunderstandings. There are those times though when you want to get a point across clearly and permanently. People hear what they want to hear. You can have a face to face conversation and the other person has a whole other understanding of what you're trying to say. I have found that writing an email first, and then talking about after gives the other person a chance to take it all in before responding.

Martin Thunman
Title: CEO
Company: Adra Match
(CEO, Adra Match) |

I agree with Len. I´ve learned the hard way that e-mail is great for positive feedback and information sharing but it´s a very dangerous tool for negative feedback.

Also, e-mails can live forever and don´t go away. One unfortunate sentence can be spread and undermine your personal reputation in no-time.

So my advice is to wait 30 minute (or a day if you are really upset) and then pick up the phone.

Sara Voight
Title: Controller
Company: Critical Signal Technologies, Inc
(Controller, Critical Signal Technologies, Inc) |

I have tried to take email to the next step - I use it to document a personal interaction with the person(s) being addressed. Whether they are down the hall from me in the same building or requiring a phone call across time zones, I make it my goal to speak before I write. I reference the conversation we had, and then look for something positive to note before I get into the meat of the matter. This way, when I have to document something that could be perceived as critical, I have always spoken to the person first and I note how we are working together well to accomplish something as I am noting the additional steps that need to be taken.

At the same time, I am careful not to write a thesis. People should be able to read the item quickly. This approach does require that I often write, save as a draft for a while, then re-read and revise before sending.

Company: NOMAD GCS

I believe that your decision as to whether or not you talk face-to-face or email a response depends upon the individual to whom you will be speaking or writing. Some individuals are not very good listeners, but are exceptional readers. In this scenario, writing a well crafted response may provide a better level of understanding than a face-to-face meeting. Conversely, if the individual is a great listener, than a face-to-face exchange may be more beneficial to all parties. In short, one needs to know your audience.

Annie Godfrey
Title: Search and Social Executive
(Search and Social Executive , |

I agree with Len, in an age where email is the most common method of communication, the power of picking up a phone/walking across an office has never been higher. I find that if I need a response or I anticipate a tricky conversation I will have a far better result if I speak to the person concerned in person. It also negates the concern that what I am trying to say can be misinterpreted.

However, I do think that emails permanent record of a conversation is invaluable - for evidence, or even future reference. Everyone is so busy these days that a conversation can easily be forgotten.

I think it's about being aware of all the tools you can access and using each one as and when appropriate.

(Chartered Accountant) |

I also think we should use face to face communication as often as possible and particularly if the email evokes a strong emotional response. Sometimes I type out a response to help me cool down but I don't send it. A couple of hours later I make time to speak to the sender, by which time I've calmed down significantly. Only after that will I consider a formal response to the e-mail in writing.