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Timely Response


Have you ever experienced not getting a reply in a timely manner? Maybe it’s a voicemail you left for someone several days ago, an unanswered email sent yesterday, or a text you sent this morning that remains unanswered or not replied to.

We seem to have unconscious expectation of the expected reply time related to the method of communication used. For example, we expect more immediacy from a text than a voice or email. For those who still write letters by hand, do you expect a reply, or are most of your hand-written letters and notes assumed to be a one-way communication?

I find myself coaching leaders to be aware of the meaning they assign to a reply not yet received, because the stories we tell ourselves often exclude understanding for the people we’re attempting to communicate with. More often, we blame the non-responder for not being accountable to their work and/or attentive to our relationship with them.

I learned my lesson in 1989, and I am so thankful that it came from a book rather than a real-life experience.

The author of that book wrote about his experience entering a NYC subway one late afternoon, at which time there was a father with his two children on the train. As the father sat, head in hands, the children were noisy and running around. Most people would say the children were misbehaving, and the author felt the same. He approached the father to point out his lack of parenting in the moment; the father lifted his head, looked dazedly around, and replied, “Oh, you’re right. I should probably do something about this. You see, we are just returning from the hospital where their mother, my wife, passed away an hour or so ago.”

The author was Stephen Covey, and he was priming the pump for the telling of many more stories to illustrate The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by suggesting that we tend to see the world from “the inside out.”

All too often, we create the meaning and tell our story first without a full understanding. We do it when our co-worker doesn’t respond to our email in the time frame we deem appropriate. We do it when a speeding car takes a chance to pass us in traffic, not knowing if they are self-centered or rushing to an emergency. We often create meaning exclusively through our own lens, failing to recognize that other lenses are also in play.

For leaders, obviously, there’s another side to the story. Leaders have a significant responsibility to communicate clearly, often and in a timely manner. Our credibility depends on our excellent communication, and timeliness is an attribute of communication which, when neglected, erodes trust and credibility. Awareness of all lenses – the leader’s as well as the employee’s unknown lens – help determine the impact and efficiency of our communication.

I want to share my three favorite effective tips on timely communication.

Reply to Acknowledge:

At minimum, reply (sooner than later) to acknowledge the sender, the message and what you’re going to do about it. We often delay replying because we don’t have the information requested, or we’re not prioritizing the workload it’s going to take to get the information. This stall tells the sender that they are not acknowledged, which often starts the wheels of a negative meaning or story to turn.

Use tools:

Some people find value in auto-replies, while others feel that they are too impersonal. Other tools such as time-blocking can be useful. Dedicate three periods a day to respond to e- and v-mails: early in the day to get to messages that have been pent-up from yesterday or the weekend, after a midday break, and at the end of the day provides intentional time periods to experiment with. Often no more than 15 minutes for each period are needed to acknowledge and even answer many messages effectively, keeping working relationships healthy.

Use your team:

Be aware of how you create meaning in the lack of a response by being the only one that can answer. Experiment with appropriate delegation of messages. Ask the people to whom you are delegating the response to begin their reply with, “Bill asked me to get back to you as he felt that I can better answer your message,” or something to that effect. You and your team will grow, more communications will flow, and performance will increase!

Clearly communicating is an important leadership attribute we train and coach at Emergent. This topic touches so many areas of leadership, it’s tempting to suggest that as executive leadership coaches, we are essentially communication coaches. To learn more about Emergent Leader, TeamFORWARD and LeadFORWARD leadership development opportunities, please reach out to me. And if I can’t reply in a timely manner, I’ll be sure to ask my team to support you as well!

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