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Sometimes, when e-mailing with someone, I feel that it's not productive to wait for their answer, and sometimes you don't understand the answer or you need to ask more questions to fully understand it.

So, how can I communicate in a more productive way?

  • In which cases should I be using e-mail?

  • How do I ensure that my e-mail gets a clear and fast response?

  • When should I rather use different communication resources like the phone or meeting with them?

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If an email has gone back and forth twice, call instead of sending a third one. It probably means the question/issue isn't clear. –  Brian Carlton Aug 16 '11 at 15:16
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4 Answers

If the question and answer should be logged somewhere, then e-mail is one idea to use so that there is a record of this being asked at some specific point in time.

Does your e-mail software allow to mark e-mails as high priority? Do you know how often the person that would be responding would get to that e-mail? Some managers may be in meetings for most of a day and thus aren't likely to e-mail a response unless they take a laptop or smartphone into a meeting.

Something to consider is what kind of follow-up questions and answer are you looking for in the e-mail. If the e-mail is simply a, "Should we go ahead with the plan to implement feature X for this release?" where the answer is likely to be a yes or no without much wiggle room then e-mail can be useful. On the other hand, if there is likely to be a discussion about the question as the answer isn't going to be a simple binary one, then it may be worth calling or scheduling a meeting.

Something else to consider is who should know about this decision and how should it be communicated? If you are implementing a coding standard, then it may be worthwhile for all the developers to be in on the conversation while if the question is something that just you and the recipient would need to know then it may be better to address it in other fashions.

Last but not least, consider your audience and how much of an e-mail person is him or her. Some people prefer e-mail as a form of communication and others would want something else. There is also instant messages, text messaging, Skype, and a few other possibilities beyond face to face and phone calls that is worth noting.

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The one detail I rarely see addressed when discussing what-form-of-communication-to-use-when is know your audience. Communication styles are not one-size-fits-all and using the wrong one can easily cause more inefficiency than any of the theoretical limitations of the medium. Some people have trouble being specific enough on the first pass and need a bit of back-and-forth (much easier in the synchronous methods) to work out the details. Others require tone of voice or body language to be comfortable. And not a few (including myself) do best with asynchronous methods that allow us to think through our reply.

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Email is "asynchronous", there is inherent delay because you are not communicating at the same time. However, that is also its biggest advantage. You don't have to wait for the other side to be available before you write your email.

Text chats, phone calls, and meetings are "synchronous". You need the participants to be available (can be hard to get) before you can start communicating. But you'll get immediate feedback from the participants, which is its advantage.

It may be more productive to combine their different strength when communicating ...

  1. Have meetings/phone calls first (discuss, brainstorm, etc), then followup with emails (confirming decisions).
  2. Sent emails first (set background, and initial discussions), then followup with meetings/phone calls (to iron out final details).

For getting a quick response to your email, I believe the most important thing is to have a good subject/title for your email. Most of the time that is the only thing the recipient would see of your email. If you can squeeze your question into the 80 or so characters allocated for email subject, then you may not even need the body of your email.

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Use email when you think it's the most convenient way to communicate. There are no rules as to when to use email and when to not, just a matter of personal preference.. then some people have worse preferences than other..

However:

To get a clear and fast response:

  • Ask direct questions
  • Get to the point fast
  • Write short e-mails, they're easier to answer and takes less time to read
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+1 for "write short e-mails". That is the key to getting replies as quickly as possible, and frankly, your other two points seem to me to just be specializations of that one. –  Michael Kjörling Aug 27 '11 at 16:21
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