Feedback Triggers and Email Rules

I started writing this post in October. Now that we’ve wrapped up reports, parent-teacher conferences, and I’ve started to read the book “Thanks for the Feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well” by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, it seems like a good time to return. While I’ve only just started the book, it begins by highlighting three triggers that seem to play into the way we send and receive emails as well. Hopefully the book will continue to shed light on this thinking, because I am currently working from the experiences of this year, which, like everything else, are a bit unusual.

I learned to type really fast in middle school. I don’t remember exactly which grade, but it must have been 6th or 7th. I still take a bit of pride when one of my elementary students notices how fast I type, and I think back to those typing games we played in computer class that helped me develop a skill that originally seemed important because it allowed me to complete high school and college essays quickly in a crunch. Over time, it has allowed me to communicate quickly and, usually, well.

I wonder, however, about two factors that play into the problems of email. Fast typing is one. I can get my ideas out quickly and sometimes that means I’m not thinking through the full email. “Send” is the second. Of all forms of communication, clicking “Send” is the most immediate way to communicate a complete idea while also eliminating my ability to gauge the response of the person or people I’m emailing. If I speak with someone face-to-face or through a phone call, it is impossible to make a statement without reading their body language, tone, or even the sounds someone makes that may not be words, but say a whole lot.

When I started my teaching career, email had recently become popular enough for everyone to have an address and to be contacted easily. I remember the ugliness of the email platform our school used, and that Reply All was still an occasional problem, but as emails ease of use continued to improve, the expected turn around time on responses became surprisingly and, arguably, inappropriately fast.

While my fast typing and quick email responses have generally been a positive, I have really started to question the usefulness of email recently. Despite the expected weirdness and unpredictability of this school year, I should have seen the weirdness and unpredictability of email coming a mile away. In October, the increased stress of the unknown was still high. We had been in school for a month, but parents weren’t in the building, we were still adapting to all the new routines, and it felt like everyone was waiting for something bad to happen. With reports and conferences coming up, along with the approach of a weird sort-of acknowledged anniversary of Covid lockdown, the stressed emails seemed to increase again. They got longer, more judgmental, and I think less productive.

Early in the year, I felt so stressed after receiving yet another angry email that I had to leave a meeting because the pressure seemed to be volcanically building up in my head. The mask sure didn’t help, but I had to tell our team, “I’m sorry guys, but I can’t be here right now. I have to go and hopefully I’ll come back soon.” I tried to come up with some email rules for myself, focused on staying curious and seeking understanding rather than assuming I either understood the problem or had the solution. Without writing specific ways to do that, I’m sure I have been far from perfect. When I started writing this post in October, it was shortly after sending a rushed and unnecessary email to colleagues that pointed out my own hypocrisy.

Stone and Heen start their book with the idea that the usefulness of feedback is mainly on the recipient and then point at three triggers that get in the way of receiving feedback well. Obviously, it is important to give feedback as well as we can, but, for now, I agree that feedback can be meaningful even when it is not delivered perfectly, if the recipient is willing to listen. The first two triggers focus on how the receiver perceives the information shared or the person sharing it. Truth triggers focus on the information and whether we think it’s true. Relationship triggers focus on whether we trust the person delivering the message. The third, the Identity trigger, is about us: “something about it has caused our identity–our sense of who we are–to come undone.”

I can think of specific examples that fall into each category, just for email, let alone all the other forms of feedback. If the feedback feels negative (it feels that way, but it could also be constructive if I could change my lens), my initial response is to dismiss it by claiming the information or the messenger isn’t trustworthy. If it undercuts who I am – as an educator, a parent, a leader – then the question of myself that ensues will almost surely take me away from receiving or responding the message productively. When I think about the email that led to my extreme frustration and walking out of a meeting, it triggered all three responses. I thought they were wrong, I didn’t trust our relationship, and it questioned my identity.

When I think about reading through emails recently that were frustrating in some way, I imagine that the writers were most likely working from a similar place. They didn’t trust the message or the messenger, and or their identity as an educator or parent was being questioned.

So where does that leave me. Most people are not going to read the book or change the way they receive feedback. It means I can read emails with more empathy and curiosity. Why might they distrust the information I am sharing? Is it our relationship? Is it the information? Am I challenging their identity in any way? I don’t yet know how these will reshape an email, but I am confident it won’t hurt.

I can also think more carefully about when I should or shouldn’t send an email. After looking back through my recent sent emails, the bulk are really simple messages. They asked or answered a simple question that didn’t require a personal (face-to-face, zoom, or phone) conversation. Some were more informational, particularly to larger groups, that couldn’t have been shared personally because of the sheer number of people. And then there were a few that were in response to, or led to a response that may have fit into one of the trigger categories above.

I would love to say my goal is to send less emails, but I don’t know if that is reasonable right now. I can at least set some guidelines for myself that I think might help:

Click Send

  • Short answer, not time sensitive
  • Set up or prepare for a conversation
  • Large group and/or clarity

Rethink/Reread/

Delete and talk:

  • Over 300 words
  • Third response in a series
  • Feeling Triggered

I like that there aren’t too many, but I also think I might need more. My plan is to try these out for a little while and revisit the rules. I hope others might suggest their own that I can add. The fact that I’ve thought about this for the whole school year says I need some help with it. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say others might, too.

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