Does This Make Steam Come Out Of Your Ears? – How To Improve Your Email Communications

A common reason for communications breaking down is simply due to the use of emails and direct messaging.

What you think may be a simple request can rapidly descend into a five-set match of email tennis, with loaded comments going back and forth every couple of minutes.

A major problem with emails in terms of communication skills and conversational skills, is that we can’t see how someone is presenting a message, we can’t hear their tone or detect their facial expression. This makes it more likely that a message will be interpreted differently to how it was intended.

Sometimes, it has more to do with style than specific words or phrases.  Other times, it’s the use of particular language that will cause relationships at work to weaken or crack.

These three tips will keep a working relationship away from the point of breakdown.  Apply these to smooth communication increasing the probability of achieving your aims without a relationship breakdown.

1. Irritation One: using the word ‘should’:

For example, in an email you make this comment: ‘You should let me know when you have authorisation for this and then I will action the request’. Using should brings to mind finger-wagging behaviour of not living up to certain expectations. And don’t think of replacing this with ‘have to’ either. That’s red rag to some bulls and is more likely to annoy the recipient than have them actually do what’s needed.

It could be seen as: patronising.

Recommendation: replace ‘should’ and ‘have to’ with ‘you’ll need to’ or ‘I’d strongly recommend that…’ or, even, ‘This is how we do this here…’ Such phrasing is easier to hear and act upon. It’s direct, can’t be misinterpreted and is still deemed as professional without the tinge of a condescending tone.

2. Irritation Two: presumptuous wording such as ‘As you know…’

This is where you write the words ‘as you know’ and then add totally new information that is unknown to everyone. For example ‘as you know, I made these comments to the shift manager yesterday’.

Did you? That was a private conversation wasn’t it? How would your colleagues know?

But what if you did actually give them this information in a previous email? Even then, this phrase is heard, “Don’t you remember? Idiot!”

It could be seen as: someone covering their back.

Recommendation: this can be re-written as a less definitive phrase, where you hedge your assumptions, for example, ‘as you may know, I spoke to the shift manager about this yesterday and I understand they communicated this to the necessary people afterwards’. You could even add a diplomatic ‘apologies if this message didn’t get to you’ at the end to smooth things further. If the message is one that was definitely sent before, then forward it including the phrase, “As you’ll see in the forwarded email, there was an agreement to…”

3. Irritation Three: cc’ing in the boss, because you can’t get what you want from a colleague

We’ve all done it, or at least we’ve all been tempted to do it and then thought better of it. But cc’ing in the boss is a sign that you can’t deal with the situation yourself and a classic example of ‘telling tales in class’. Your boss might not look favourably on it either, partly because it means they now have to smooth over the friction this may cause in addition to the fact that now they’re obviously in the loop, they’re almost obligated to be involved.

It could be seen as: trouble-making and cowardly

Recommendation: if the communication is breaking down, go and see the person face-to-face to discuss the issue. Usually, two adults should – whoops, excuse me –need – to be able to work it out between each other by saying:

a) what needs to be done and, perhaps, why the current situation could be problematic

b) who will do it

c) finish with ‘as soon as you have this, I’ll be happy to help you’.

If the tone is constructive and respectful, there is less chance of being cold-shouldered offline or of email mud-slinging. There are times, though, when your boss does need to be involved.  However, firstly, it may be better to approach them to ask for advice on the issue then you aren’t forcing them to deal with this. Especially in matrix organisations, it is actually an issue between team leaders or managers so don’t be shy in approaching them if you think that’s the case.

To expand on effective email communication and how direct you can be in English, without being rude or weak, look at this article.

And if you want more guidance and solutions on improving your communications, sign-up for my communications skills coaching today.

This article was originally published in April 2013 and completely updated in October 2023.


  • Michael Collins says:

    Thought-provoking tip as ever.
    I don’t use should in this way, however, how I ask someone to do something in an email varies.

    I might use “should” like this: “I would be very grateful if you should let me know when you have…”
    The level of bluntness in the request depends on the person, their culture and our existing relationship.
    “Please let me know..” for people who like the direct approach.
    And grades inbetween.

    I do use “As you know” but only when I know that they know, eg we discussed it on the phone five minutes ago. Sometimes my memory is better than theirs though, strangely.

    Irritation 3 is the worst by far. The extreme case is somebody writing to your boss, cc you with a report, saying something like “Michael will establish world peace by Friday” without having agreed it with me first (Perhaps I previously agreed to a much smaller related task . This is one of the worst possible stitch-ups that people do.

    BTW the link in the email “Get the other 2 tips here!” didn’t work for me..

    • Alison says:

      Hi Michael!

      Thanks so much for your comments. The link got fixed and I hope you didn’t have to faff around too long before the note came through. Well done for persevering!

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