Hints, Tips and Caveats for Effective Email Communication

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These simple suggestions can help make all kinds of email communication more effective. In the case of counselling by email, they may help make your experience more productive and enjoyable.

Communicating Effectively by Email

A few tools and reminders — ranging from the probably obvious to the more subtle — can help make email communication more effective.

Taking Time to Reflect

When emotions are high, it is easy to hit ‘Reply’ and fire off an immediate response to something another person has written. This carries the benefit of spontaneity, and sometimes that spontaneity is really valuable. At other times, however, it leads to regret, as it later sinks in that the immediate response didn’t really reflect the complexities of the emotions involved. One of the advantages of counselling by email is that it provides time to reflect carefully on what the other person has written, and on our own response to it, before responding. It’s worth taking a moment to consider how the advantages of spontaneity compare with the advantages of reflection: there’s no ‘right’ answer that applies all the time, but one answer might be more or less right for any given person in a given situation.

Quoting

When responding specifically to something the other person has written, it can be helpful to quote all or some of the bit eliciting the reply. Especially when a day or two has passed before a reply, this can help the recipient identify exactly which part of their original message you are responding to. When counselling by email, I generally quote all of a client’s original message when replying.

Emphasis in Plain Text

Standard methods for emphasizing words and phrases in plain text include *asterisks for italics*, _underscore for underlining_, and ALL CAPITALS FOR EXTRA STRONG EMPHASIS. All capitals are generally best avoided except for short bursts, since by long-standing netiquette convention, they are the plain text equivalent of shouting.

Emoticons and Tags

Plain text versions of winks ;-) or smiles :-) or frowns :-) can help impart a certain twist more quickly than writing out a detailed explanation. The rise in popularity (especially in Europe) of SMS texting on mobile phones has led to a profusion of variations on these simple emoticons, but keep in mind that not everyone will be familiar with the latest.

Another versatile way of adding such expressions uses <angled brackets>. Rather than :-), it is increasingly common to write <grin>. Drawing on web coding standards, which enclose sections of web markup in an opening <tag> and a closing </tag>, some writers now use conventions like the following:

<rant>

Here is my example of using opening and closing tags to set off a section of text in which I really want to have a rant about something — rant, rant, rant!

</rant>

Meta Bracketing

Much of counselling is concerned with developing or making use of self-awareness, and sometimes it’s helpful to indicate in brackets what thoughts or feelings you might be aware of experiencing while writing a particular passage. For example [wondering if this is a silly way to do it], in trying to convey this particular idea, I might insert some relevant brackets within this very sentence [realizing you’ve probably already understood anyway]. Here, the main sentence describes an example of bracketing, while the brackets express my wondering whether it’s a silly example and my realizing that probably you’ve already got it anyway.

Because the brackets can be used to describe some other thoughts or feelings about the very process of describing thoughts or feelings (i.e., they describe a ‘meta process’), this is sometimes called ‘meta bracketing’, ‘process bracketing’, or ’emotional bracketing’ (although, of course, they needn’t necessarily be about emotions). They differ from ordinary parentheses in that parentheses (like those in this sentence and the previous one) are part of the main idea being conveyed.

Descriptive Immediacy

‘Descriptive immediacy’ is just a fancy term for describing one’s immediate state, physically or intellectually or emotionally, right at the time of writing. For instance, I might reply to someone in the following way: “As I sit here pondering your experience of the interview, I get a butterfly sensation in my stomach. I find myself thinking back to what happened the last time, and I can’t help smiling, feeling a real excitement that you’ve pulled it off!”. This kind of description can help the other person to appreciate important elements of your broader state of mind while writing which would otherwise be lost. They can also help to make the whole experience of exchanging letters and words and paragraphs through email feel more real: after all, there is a real live human being sitting at the other end of the exchange!

Things to Watch Out For

Being aware of a few of the common pitfalls of communicating by email can help you to avoid them.

Transference and Projective Identification

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Perhaps more than any other communications medium, email really seems able to bring out the worst in terms of transference and projective identification. Roughly, the first of these terms refers to the phenomenon of interacting with someone as if they were a different significant other in one’s life (such as interacting with a manager at work as if they were your mother). Roughly, the second refers to the phenomenon of experiencing in someone else’s behaviour exactly those features which one doesn’t like for oneself, whether or not those features are actually present (such as interpreting a colleague’s critical feedback as if it were a manifestation of a sort of vindictiveness which you don’t like when you experience it in yourself). In the absence of extra verbal and nonverbal cues which ordinarily help us to figure out another person’s intended meaning (see the page “Disadvantages of Email Counselling and Online Therapy in General”), transference and projective identification can take on a life of their own, leading to really spectacular failures of communication. I believe this probably happens more frequently with people less experienced with the medium, but I also believe it just comes with the territory of expressing or reading complex feelings or thoughts via email.

Probably the best response to the potential challenges of transference and projective identification is just to try and be aware of them. If a particular piece of writing evokes a powerful, passionate response, it can be helpful to pause and reflect on where that reaction comes from — is the response particularly influenced by your own thoughts, assumptions, previous experiences, feelings or beliefs, over and above what the other person has actually written? Fortunately, in a therapeutic setting — as distinct from communicating with that difficult manager at work — its easy to explore these phenomena as they occur. Indeed, cultivating this sort of self-awareness can itself be very valuable therapeutically.

Is it Personal?

Much as with the subtle influence of transference and projective identification, it can be easy to find yourself suddenly reading a personal attack where actually none was intended. This is less likely to happen in counselling itself, since even in the absence of face-to-face cues it will normally be very clear that a counsellor has no wish at all to launch a personal attack! Nonetheless, I believe a large part of effective communication by email comes down to cultivating an awareness of the emotions and other reactions elicited by the experience of reading an email, especially when those reactions lead in the direction of taking something personally. When an email seems like a personal attack, it can be helpful to pause and reflect — is this really what the person means? Is there anything else they could possibly mean? How might another person read this same message?

Avoidance and Scheduling

Face-to-face meetings, whether in a counselling setting or more generally, demand attention in a way which emails sitting quietly on a computer do not. Sometimes it is easier to allow an email to sit unanswered than to address difficult topics in an ongoing exchange. Something else can always be found to occupy any given moment that might otherwise be spent on an email!

If you find yourself avoiding writing emails which you really feel need writing, it can be helpful to set aside a specific time, perhaps even a regular weekly slot, which you can treat much like a physical meeting but which you can spend instead on writing. In the case of counselling, it’s particularly important to remember that this is time set aside for you and your counselling work; if it doesn’t feel like that, and the writing just seems too much of a chore, that may be worth reflecting on as a possible sign that counselling isn’t right for you at this time.

Additional Security Information

For hints and tips specifically addressing security and privacy, please see the separate page on “Encryption and Security of Online Therapy”.

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