This past week, I have been at both the giving and receiving ends of some very poor communication.

Dishing it out: I asked for backup support with a project, but neglected to mention a specific time the support would be needed. To make matters worse, no one had the mental bandwidth to reply with a clarifying question, so the email wasn’t answered until it was too late.

Being dished: After spending half a week on a project, all preliminaries were junked when the project owner mentioned requirements that should have been in the initial request.

We’re all busy. When we are the source of a request, it’s important that we either do the work of providing all key details, or clearly state what details are needed from the other person. When we’re the recipient of an unclear email, it’s up to us to ask for missing details, and to make sure we get them.

One tool I use is a quick checklist:

If you get the feeling a note (either that you’ve received or are about to send) is unclear, re-read it and jot down the questions that come to mind (they will). If you’re having trouble coming up with questions, give yourself a “who-what-where-when” kick-start: Does the message name all necessary names? Does it explain exactly what’s happening, or what’s needed? Do you need to know more about where or when? (Sure, you learned that years ago, but did you use it in your last memo?) Once you start a list like this, it’s surprisingly easy to know when you’re done.

And once you’ve jotted down those questions…

Are the questions for an email you’re sending? Answer what you can, and ask for help with the others.

Are the questions for an email you’ve received? Reply to the sender with a numbered or bulleted list of questions. Don’t glob the questions into a long paragraph, but break them out into easy-to-answer pieces.

And remember to be patient with yourself and others. We are all busy; Communication is one of those things that will never be perfect, and could always use a little improvement.

This article purposely leaves out the nuances of more complex communications, such as those that seek to inspire change or address organizational issues. If you’re looking beyond the simple project memo, see Ken Milloy’s thoughtfully assembled 11 Laws of Internal Communications.


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