You receive an email. Immediately, you’re enraged. Angry. Annoyed. Maybe there’s a piece of you that knows you should hold off, but you can’t help yourself. The urge is too strong. You fire off a reply as you’re running to your next meeting.
Almost immediately, you regret it.
Who hasn’t had that experience?
It’s part of the human condition. The urge to fire back is a compulsion. We almost can’t help ourselves.
It’s natural to want to fire back. And often it’s therapeutic to unleash everything we want to say.
But it’s rarely constructive. Or productive.
The time we save by firing off a quick response is generally outweighed by the time we spend in repairing the damage caused by that quick response.
So how do we avoid the trap of reactivity?
The simple answer is to pause.
Of course, understanding that it’s important to pause and actually pausing are two different things.
It’s hard to remind yourself to pause in the moment when you’re caught up in trance. But we can condition the habit of the pause.
Here are a few practical suggestions to help you do that.
The more we practice the pause, the more we condition it as our natural first response.
This is our practice in mindfulness meditation. As we sit and focus on the breath, we notice that the breath is not just inhale and exhale. It has a pause.
Inhale. Pause. Exhale. Pause.
We can supplement that conditioning in many other areas of life.
Before my first stand-up comedy show, my teacher advised us to take a breath when we got on stage, before starting.
I hear her words echo in my mind:
Take a beat, as they say in the biz.
Good advice for performance and for life. I love this expression so much, and especially the way she said it, that I adopted it as a mantra.
Before any activity, I remind myself to “take a beat.”
The more we can condition the practice of “taking a beat,” the more we create that as our natural reaction habit.
(2) Watch Your Language
Notice the language you use around your activities.
Among the classes I teach to real estate agents is a workshop on communication clarity. One thing I cover is our language around emails.
Our language both reveals and influences our emotions and our mindset. Awareness and precision with your language and help naturally inject a pause.
Every time I hear someone talk about “firing off an email” I cringe.
Recognize that if you “quickly fired off an email in response” you reacted.
I try not to “fire off” emails. Instead, I think about crafting emails. Just that shift in language causes me to slow down.
(3) The Back-up Plan: Get It Out Another Way
Sometimes we simply cannot resist the urge to unleash our thoughts. Those situations require a strict rule:
Always craft emails outside of the email app.
I typically begin all writing projects, including emails, in the Drafts app for iOS. Drafts is a simple text editor with powerful actions. I can send an email straight from the app. If I wanted to reply in the thread, I could copy it from Drafts and paste it in.
You could use your favorite text editor or note-taking app.
What is crucial is that you not mindlessly click on “Reply” or “Reply All” and start typing.
I know you’re thinking I’ll write the reply and save it as a draft.
Don’t do it. Sometimes technology does weird things.
The only thing worse than firing off a reply and regretting it is firing off a reply and not realizing you sent it.
If you must write it out, do it in a completely separate place where you can’t send it by accident.
Once you write it, let it rest. Sleep on it.
I find that getting out what I want to say in a place where nobody can see it helps me clear my mind. Then I can often craft a more constructive response without feeling the trap of reactivity.
(4) Practice Embracing The Pause
We often get so busy and frantic that we try to bypass the pause.
In this age of rapid fire responses it might feel like you’re being too slow. It can feel uncomfortable to delay your response.
Embracing a pause requires leaning into the discomfort of the empty space. We often would rather lob back a quick reply to “keep the conversation going.”
Of course, if you rush your reply you could stop the conversation for good.
This is part of the practice. Recognize that the urge to reply quickly comes from an expectation, not a command.
If you feel that you must reply immediately, buy yourself some time by informing the sender that you will respond once you’ve had a chance to consider it more fully.
You might be surprised by how many people appreciate that over the “fired off response.”
Often, slower is better.
Remember that email is a means to an end. The goal is not to reply as fast as possible, it’s to meet the bigger outcome.
In the space of the pause, you may realize that the best response is to pick up the phone.
What are your best tips for conditioning the pause and avoiding sending an email that you’ll regret? Please share in the comments!