Email can be a useful learning tool, but there are downsides. When you put off actual hard research into difficult topics, and focus instead on building a shortcase, you lack the consideration and critical thinking skills needed to reap useful learning from the exercise.
This dynamic, known as “online brainstorming” (in the Oxford dictionary, it’s scopophilia) takes this one step further by allowing an unlimited number of participants—which means you might only have a few minutes to get your thoughts off your chest. That’s a very poor way to learn anything particularly complicated. As University of Michigan’s Drew Kosofsky, who discovered the thinking process in 1973, wrote in his essay “Ignore Truth to Find Clues” (pdf) (citing others’ work), “Most information systems, especially those carrying complex ideas and rules, are natural impediments to investigation.”
But rather than using email to get things off your chest, here are a few tips for smarter email conversations and better learning from them:
1. Measure the progress of the conversation.
Et voila, one-sentence solutions to seemingly complex problems appear on your screen before you’ve even written them. In such cases, the quality of your thoughts are measured by how well they fit into your larger points. If you’re arguing a point, take your subject from its poster board to your notebook. Watch your audience’s reaction when your thoughts meet theirs. Keep your subject as flexible as possible. This is a very quick and easy method for boosting the quality of your thinking in about 10 minutes.
2. Think from the top.
Use your end-of-sentence: “I assume” or “I expect.” (There are many different examples on the Web). When someone replies with a more specific comment, ask them to explain it to you, and repeat what they said. Answering with another topic or sentence kind of defeats the original point, leaving it incomplete. Also use “it” to mean more than “it.” For example, when you add, “It’s only my opinion,” you’re not trying to justify your position—you’re hoping to garner some persuasion. Even if someone replies that it’s unfair, recognize that what they said made sense and said something you could use.
3. Watch others if you’re talking about feedback.
“Tell me more about the problem” is probably a popular conversation starter for all kinds of ideas—a way to get in your elevator pitch. But say you have a 5-minute block and some progress is being made—that doesn’t mean it’s time to end the conversation. Use your audience to ask questions and propose alternatives.
4. Trust your gut
Responding strongly to someone who doesn’t seem to be responding to your content will only display how out of touch you are with the subject at hand. Don’t be the person who closes the thought because you didn’t get the answers you expected. People need to know that you are someone they can trust to have their back. Reversing out an idea if you do not like how it’s coming across will show that you don’t know how people think. People can read into this answer a lot more quickly than if you have one in mind first.
5. Get a desk at home.
Since email can be a way to meet people, try getting your own office space. If your office is crammed into your home, you might come to see that while it’s beautiful, it isn’t practical for productive work. Choose the best pieces of furniture you can afford, and make it look like you are at home with people around to “support you.”