Effective leaders mirror in e-mails


I once had two coworkers, Mark and Sally. In DiSC-speak, Sally was a high I, and used many many many exclamation marks in her e-mails. I am not exaggerating when I say that one of Sally’s e-mails could consist of three sentences and 13 exclamation marks. Mark, on the other hand,

was a high D. He never ever used exclamation marks. In fact, his e-mails were so short and to the point that sensitive people always worried that he might be mad about something. In reality, his e-mails were efficient, pared down, and completely eliminated small talk. So, as an outsider, I became aware that Sally was always paranoid that Mark was mad at her or didn’t like or appreciate her, and that Mark was totally annoyed by Sally’s e-mails; he didn’t have time for all the “how are you doing?” Or “that would be totally awesome!!!!!!!!” stuff.

Fortunately, I was once in the position to suggest to Sally that she eliminate her exclamation marks when corresponding with Mark, “just to see what will happen.” A couple hours later, she came to my office all excited “I just got the longest nicest e-mail from Mark ever!”

Most effective leaders have learned that mirroring in face-to-face communication, or over the phone communication, is important when working to connect with others. We stand like people stand, we match our vocal pitch to theirs, and phrase things in a similar way. In e-mail communication, lots of us forget about that. This is because e-mail is about efficiency, not effectiveness. However, we can connect better and get better results if we work to keep our e-mail effective, and that includes mirroring.

Try this for a while: match your correspondent’s greeting, closing, and punctuation marks. Now, be careful about doing this too obviously, in case their greetings and closings are very unique. But keep it in the same vein.

For example, if someone starts an e-mail with “Dear Alan,” I will write back to you starting with “Dear Sally-”. Notice that I’ve traded the comma for the hyphen. This makes it mirroring, rather than mimicking. If you close your e-mail to me with “Best Regards,” I am likely to close mine with “Best,”. But if you start your e-mail to me with “Yo Alan,” it would be unwise for me to respond with “Dear Mr. Smith;”. If someone ends an e-mail with “Thanks,” it makes sense to close with “Thank You-”.

But watch those exclamation marks. A brilliant man who took me under his wing at the start of my career, Steve Dikkers, often said this: “You are given three exclamation marks at birth to use throughout your life. Use them wisely.” While I find that limitation a bit extreme (I am a high I after all), exclamation marks thrill some, and rub others the wrong way. If you receive an e-mail that has three exclamation marks peppered throughout it, ensure three exclamation marks in your reply. Likewise, if you receive an e-mail with zero exclamation marks, regardless of your own enthusiasm, puts none in the reply.

We know that subtle mirroring in face-to-face communication connects us. The same is true in e-mail. Give it a shot.

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