If dealing with lots of difficult situations and emotional people is part of your job, it can get overwhelming. Get-It-Done Guy has tips on how to streamline your communication, yet maintain sensitivity and respect.
Listener Charlotte writes in:
“I volunteer for a charity that supports people who are expected to pass away soon. The many emails I receive require a personal and inevitably long response. How can I reply quickly yet sensitively?”
Death is terrible. I can understand your desire to treat each person individually, showing the maximum sensitivity possible. You would never, for example, want to say, “Your condition may be fatal, but look on the bright side. Now someone can dig up your corpse, turn you into a zombie, and recruit you to their zombie army to take over the world.” Comments like that would get you fired in no time and are in very poor taste. Don’t even think it.
Your job is to be comforting, offer psychological advice, but not get too close. And certainly don’t encourage them to use you as an ongoing therapist.
Use Snippets to Automate Parts of Your Letters
You need “mass customization.” That’s when you create customized letters in large quantities. It’s the ultimate goal of technology: making people feel like you’re paying attention to them, while actually treating them as interchangeable car parts.
In other episodes, I’ve discussed using templates in email to make email faster and easier to write. I’ve also discussed using text macros to abbreviate sentences and phrases. In the case of emotional communication, what you’ll want to do is put the two of these together.
In days gone by, no one would ever have mistaken trivial templates and brief sound bites for human compassion and connection. Fortunately, it’s the 21st century; Facebook and Twitter have done the heavy lifting for us. Now that friendship consists of 140-character status updates, let’s follow their lead and see if we can turn your clients’ need for human connection into something efficient.
Identify the Common Themes
Browse your past messages for half an hour to identify the common themes people write about. I’ll guess there aren’t too many: spiritual concerns, fear of dying, worry about their loved ones who will be left behind, wishing they’d lived parts of their lives differently, and sharing their secret, insider knowledge of the Kennedy assassination. (You never know when that friend who jokes about secret Kennedy X-rays under his bed really has them.)
For each theme, write up a paragraph or two that has the points you usually make when someone emails you about those issues. You can write full prose, or if you prefer, just bullet points that you will expand into full sentences on a case-by-case basis. Now create shortcuts for each snippet. When someone writes in, just string together the shortcuts relating to their problem and then flesh out the bullet points as necessary.
For example, for spiritual concerns, you might define a shortcut spiritc. It turn it into, “Spiritual concerns are obviously a very important part of end-of-life. I recommend you talk to a spiritual counselor from your own faith. If you like, I can help you find one, or you can visit our web page where we have a full listing.”
Don’t Write, Call
You can also speed your responses by abandoning email. Talking is far faster than writing. Plus, voice tone conveys emotion better than text. For emotional topics, you might respond to their email with a phone call. You can use a sympathetic tone of voice and say the same thing more quickly.
The danger with calling, of course, is that they want to drag it out into a full counseling session. You need to get good at compassionately saying, “I have to go now. Others need my help, too, and I need to attend to them as well.” If you’re feeling entrepreneurial, you can add, “Of course, I can stay on the line for a reasonable per-minute fee. I take Visa, Mastercard, Discover, and American Express.”
Go Straight-Out Customization, But Pre-Frame It
Mass customization doesn’t always work. The gym desk attendant greets me by name. When it’s someone I know, it feels personal. When it’s a new employee, they’re obviously reading my name from the database. It feels like an inept, inauthentic attempt at awkward, fake intimacy. Since that describes my lifetime of dating experience, it makes me feel right at home.
Oddly, you can let someone know you’ll be impersonal, right up front. Say “I’ll be here for you. Sometimes I have many people I have to take care of, so in order to get back to you quickly, I will often send a form letter or something less personal. If you need 1-on–1 attention, just reply and tell me so and we’ll schedule a quick phone call.”
By saying this up front, you can use letters and templates in a way that won’t be seen as rude or dismissive. You’ve made it clear you’re there if they really need you, and the form letter is not intended as a brush-off.
You’re also escalating from email to phone, and from interruptions to scheduling. Phones require dialing. How much work is that? If they do write back, you say, “Call today at 4:38pm.” Now they have to pick up the phone, dial it, and wait … and wait … for it to ring. Then they have to talk. It’s so much work you’ll be surprised how many people suddenly find they don’t need your time as badly as they thought.
It’s not easy to give everyone your full attention for hours. But you can at least give them chunks of your attention. Use snippets to do mass customization of email. Call instead of writing; it’s faster, as long as you can get off the phone quickly. And pre-frame your relationship, so people will be happy with form letters, but know they can pick up the phone and call if the going gets truly tough.
This is Stever Robbins. I help business leaders step up their performance to the next level by identifying and focusing on their most strategically important initiatives. If you want to know more, visit http://www.SteverRobbins.com.
Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!