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The Hard Truth About Politely Written Workplace Emails The Hard Truth About Politely Written Workplace Emails
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Are You Being Courteous or Weak? The Hard Truth About Politely Written Workplace Emails

Sarah Schott •  April 5, 2016 | Business and Careers

SchottbThink for a minute about the work emails or texts you’ve written over the past few days. Did you use words or phrases like the following?

“I’m just following up on ...”

“I wanted to touch base with you on ...”

“If you have time between now and Tuesday ...”

We all have a tendency to use what I call “hedge” words in workplace communications. Under certain circumstances, being a little less-than-direct may be appropriate, especially if you’re making a request of someone you don’t know very well and you want to be polite. You may also tend to use hedge words when communicating with people who are “up the chain” because you want to be respectful (and not demanding) of those who hold a higher position.

The problem is this: Hedging can backfire. When you are indirect, you run the risk of diluting your message or sabotaging your credibility.

1. You don’t convey strength. When you use hedge words and phrases over and over, you may create the impression that you’re not a strong a leader; you’re not clear in your opinions or passionate about the topic, or you don’t expect to be taken seriously. You may also end up getting less credit for your idea and its outcome if you don’t appear to have been in control. So if you want to drive something forward and own it, you have to communicate in ways that show you’re engaged, excited, focused and confident. When you do, you’ll be more likely to win the support of people who can help you make it happen.

2. You may actually send the wrong message. When you are less-than-direct in your communications, others are left to read between the lines and may make inaccurate assumptions. For example, say you want to generate support within your company for a new idea, and you send an email that reads, “I’m reaching out to a number of stakeholders to get perspective before we move forward.” You may feel you’re asking for their opinion politely. But to others, your hedge words may signal something more sinister: “Gosh, I wonder if other people already disagree with this idea. Maybe there’s something she’s not telling me.” Instead, consider a more straightforward approach. “I’m looking for your opinion on X, Y, and Z in order to finalize our next steps.” Doesn’t that sound more confident?

Changing Jobs? Top Financial Considerations Beyond Salary3. Your request may not take priority. People tend to associate directness with a sense of urgency. “Where do we stand on X?” will command more attention and rise to the top of the to-do list faster than an email that reads, “Just following up on the status of X.” But when you’re being direct, it’s helpful to give context and explain why you’re making a direct request. For instance, “In order to be ready for next week’s rollout, we need input/agreement on X by Friday. Where does that stand?”

These strategies aren’t necessarily new, but they are becoming increasingly important since so much of workplace communication today takes place via email and text. Without face-to-face interaction—and the nuances of a person’s tone of voice and hand gestures—you lose the context that is so valuable in conveying a message. That’s why I think many people overcompensate by using hedge words in written communications. They don’t want to come off as being too bossy or demanding. It’s understandable—but it’s risky.

So how can you be sure you’re sending the right message? I’ll offer two pieces of advice:

First, be aware. The next time you draft an email, check it for hedge words and phrases. Ask yourself why you’ve included them and what message they could be sending unintentionally. You may also be surprised by how much more confident your message sounds when you take hedge words out.

And second, when nuance is critical, walk down the hall or pick up the phone. And if you can’t do that, try video conferencing. When there’s a lot riding on a conversation, there’s no substitute for tone of voice and face-to-face signals.

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