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How Do You Handle E-mails You Don’t Know How to Answer?

Like many productivity junkies, I’m a fan of the Inbox Zero concept, meaning I try to maintain an empty e-mail inbox. There is, however, one obstacle I keep tripping over: how do you deal with e-mails you don’t know how to answer?

You know the type. A long message that, for the sake of politeness, demands some response. But, alas, contains no direct questions or other indications of what to say in such a response.

These e-mails can linger in my inbox (or, sit, sadly, labeled with “reply” in my archive) indefinitely, until, eventually, overcome with guilt, I file for a name change and move to the midwest. Or delete it. Depending on my mood.

I’m seeking your help here. How do you deal with e-mails you don’t know how to answer?

8 thoughts on “How Do You Handle E-mails You Don’t Know How to Answer?”

  1. I thank them for sending me the email, typically include something polite asking them how they’re doing or make a comment like glad to hear that ___ is going well, or hope ____ goes well etc, and then ask them to clarify what they were asking me or if its obvious they weren’t asking me anything, leave it at that. Not sure if that helps?

  2. First thing, I would thank them for the message. Then I would make a few comments on what they wrote. Something along the lines of “your idea about ______ sounds interesting/compelling/ etc”.
    Lastly I would go to the heart of the matter and acknowledge that I need clarification on certain things before I get back to them with a more detailed reply.

    In this way with just three brief sentences, I have thrown the ball of conversation back to them. At this point it will be their responsibility to reply if they want to hear back from me.

    There is no more guilt from my part once I have replied

    I hope this addressed your question 🙂

  3. I don’t often get these, but I am guilty of sending e-mails of this sort. I do, however, know how this e-mails should be replied to. Sometimes you can infer what they mean or want to know from the context, but when often times you cannot, I would summarize their main points or the content of the e-mail to show them that I did actually read it. Then, I would move to inquire about any specifics they’d like to know about the topic or whatever they were e-mailing about and lastly thank them for their e-mail, etc. Perhaps it’d be easier to help you if you provided a hypothetical version.

  4. I mark them (in yahoo mail, i “flag” it, or on gmail, “star” it – or just earmark it somehow), then I set aside some time each day (10 minutes max) to sit down and really drill through all the flagged emails.

    You just have to set aside some time to stop and think. I find if you really try hard and spend time thinking about how to respond, it shouldn’t take more than 3 minutes to respond. You just have to drill/ grill through it.

  5. Most of the time, I tend to be rather vague, but I still try to raise a point at the end, if possible related to the subject. Some of my teachers are pretty skilled at this kind of mail, so I’m trained now ^^…

  6. I tend to get these e-mails from relatives I’m not too close to. Since they don’t ask me anything specific, I just tell them how things are going with my life & my family- not personal stuff (which I may not be comfortable telling them), just general information like my sister is having her exams around now & she’s busy studying etc. I try to make it seem informative, yet general.
    Not sure if you have relatives like mine who do this but that’s how I handle it.

  7. Great advice. Common points here seem to be:

    (1) Identify one specific thing and respond to it, indicating you read the message.

    (2) If it looks like they are trying to ask for something, request clarification.

    (3) Be brief.

    Another gotcha I’ve been mulling: avoid vague “reply hooks.” I notice I have a tendency, when writing a response to this type of message, to throw in some sort of question or comment that invites a response even though I don’t want a response. When composing, it feels natural. But from a productivity point of view, it can lead to a 100% increase in hard to answer e-mail messages. I’m trying now to be careful about avoiding these hooks. Though maybe that just makes me curmudgeonly…


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