Don’t hit send (yet)

To paraphrase Aldous Huxley, experience isn’t what happens to us, it’s what we do with what happens to us. We have a choice about how to relate to any given situation, but oh, the choices we make! Too often they are knee-jerk reactions to events rather than responses that are the result of any real thought process.

How recently have you sent an email or text that you almost immediately regretted? It’s so easy and quick to react and hit ‘send’. But then the second thoughts arrive, or worse, the other person’s angry answer. And so we get caught up in a cycle of reflexive reaction that often makes honest, productive communication difficult to achieve.Email send

I currently have to work with someone whom I find very difficult. Unfortunately, email, with its inherent weaknesses, is the usual way we do business. This person seems (to me) to be overly sensitive, easily stressed, inattentive, and often very reactive. Sometimes I will send what feels like a very straightforward, innocuous message to this person, and get something back that just makes me want to scream. In the past, my instinct would have been to reply with some sort of snarky, hostile email. Now I am learning to wait a while before replying so that I can practice responding instead of reacting.

Responses are logical where reactions are emotional. Responses relate to the current situation as it is, while reactions tend to have some emotional associations to the past. Responses are thoughtful, reactions instinctual. Parent coach Nicole Schwarz recommends meeting “emotionally-charged behavior” not with criticism or judgment, but with observing and questioning. Richard Blonna has a list of  responding skills, including using “I” language, saying “tell me more”, paraphrasing, and reflecting back what the other person has said. These all have a way of defusing an emotionally-charged or angry situation.

The basis for responding rather than reacting is the cultivation of equanimity, being able to meet people and situations with tranquility, open-heartedness and acceptance. This is especially important when dealing with things that are out of our control, such as other people’s actions. Jon Kabat-Zinn writes,

The path of entering and blending in moments when you feel attacked or threatened in some way obviously involves taking certain risks, since you can’t know what the protagonist will do next nor how you will respond. But if you are committed to meeting each moment mindfully, with as much calmness and acceptance as possible, and with a sense of your own integrity and balance, fresh and imaginative solutions that might lead to a new level of understanding and greater harmony often come to mind…

Kabat-Zinn suggests that we apply this attitude even when we text or email. Be “in your body as you use your devices, …  thus being in the present moment…construct texts mindfully, with full awareness of what you are doing. If you are responding to tons of email, …pace yourself…” We can tell whether we are responding effectively by the feelings that result. Do you feel balanced and relaxed, or angry, fearful and imbalanced? Olpin & Hesson say that “Responding ineffectively leads to a chaotic inner environment.” Responding effectively can lead to feelings of growth, and potentially better relationships.

Sydney_147It’s not easy to compose each text and email as if we were sitting down with a pen, paper, and all the time in the world. The world around us insists that we rush and multi-task, that everything we own have multiple functions, that every thought and emotion be shared. Can we resist just a little? Take a breath, and decide, “I don’t need to say what I’m thinking right this moment. I can do better than that. I can be better than that.”


Time Zapper

When people are asked about stressors in their lives, one of the most common answers is not having enough time. Yet, we don’t always acknowledge that we can be our own worst enemies when it comes to creating time crunches for ourselves.

Sometimes time pressures result from genuinely having too much to do. But often they come from either inability to set boundaries for our time, or frequently, from our own unproductive work habits. Probably nothing has had a bigger effect on procrastination and low productivity at work than email, whether it’s our habit of reflexively checking it every five minutes or our expectation that it will be read immediately.

Although we see commercials on TV of people seamlessly and instantaneously completing international business deals with a click of the smart phone, in reality many business and personal transactions take place only after a long string of emails back and forth. The question is, is that the best way to get things done?

Chris Anderson, curator of the TED conference, addressed this topic in last Sunday’s Washington Post. He believes that email volume is getting out of hand in part because email is “easier to create than to respond to”. Someone sends you an email, crosses that off their to-do list, and leaves you with the harder job of formulating an answer. Worst, Anderson says, are the emails with open-ended questions, such as “What are your thoughts?”

Because people have come to expect rapid responses to emails, the recipient is then stuck with deciding whether to drop other (probably more important) work to come up with an adequate answer to that open-ended question, or to leave it in the inbox for a while and let the email pile up.

As long as 20 years ago, some early tech pioneers had already given up email and gone back to using the telephone as a primary tool of communication. Sherry Turkle of MIT may have coined the term “email bankruptcy” after her research showed that people wanted to wipe out all the email in their inboxes. Since then, there have been regular news stories about people who have done just that – deleted all their unanswered emails, and started over with a clean slate.

Stephen Covey, in his books on time management, recommends dividing tasks into a matrix:

  1. Urgent & Important;
  2. Important but Not Urgent;
  3. Urgent but Not Important; and
  4. Not Urgent or Important.

He believes that most time should be spent working in quadrant 2 (important, but not urgent), doing things like planning, relationship building and personal development. The problem might be when you think you are relationship building by sending someone an email, when you’re actually creating a quadrant 3 (urgent, but not important) task for them by expecting them to respond!

With that in mind, Anderson and others at TED have come up with the Email Charter, which is basically a list of principles to abide by when sending email. All the principles are designed to “encourage senders to reduce the time, effort and stress required of responders.” They include points such as “no open-ended questions” and use of the acronym, “NNTR”, which stands for “No need to respond”.

Some other things we might ask ourselves:

  • Is email the best form of communication for this message? Will I be better understood if I call or talk face to face instead?
  • How often do I really need to check my emails? Would once an hour be appropriate? How about every two hours, or three times a day? Figure out what is best for you and try to make it a habit.
  • If you cannot resist checking the email, consider downloading software that will block it for you. Programs such as SelfControl can block email servers and Facebook for a set amount of time, and not let you use them until the timer runs out.
  • Can you declare an email vacation once a week, or once a month? Plan a day without checking or responding to emails. You’d be surprised how much time you have for things like family, friends, reading a book or going for a walk.

Ultimately, we need to figure out if the things that are least important in our lives are getting the most attention. Sherry Turkle has said, “Sometimes we’re too busy communicating to listen to each other.” Can we break the cycle?