How To Respond To That Email When You Don’t Know What To Say

I’m sure we’ve all known the agony of receiving an email that throws us into decision-hell. “What do I do? What do I say?” we helplessly ask ourselves, all the while feeling the pressure to reply ASAP. But guess what – you don’t have to make the decision right this second.

By Paula Gallagher3 min read
How To Respond To That Email When You Don’t Know What To Say shutterstock

I remember reading Pride and Prejudice and being struck by two things: firstly, Mr. Bennett replied to Mr. Collins’ letter after two whole weeks had passed as he “thought it a case of some delicacy and requiring early attention,” and secondly, that paying someone to carry a letter miles and miles on horseback was the fastest long-distance communication possible in the early 1800s. 

Skip ahead two hundred years, and now we have texting, which allows us to send the written word instantaneously, and if someone doesn’t respond within 10 minutes, we wonder what the heck else they could possibly be doing rather than texting us back.

This sense of urgency and being always available has spilled over into the workplace with emails, specifically with emails that we can answer from our phones. People expect you to be checking your email throughout the day and responding “in a timely manner” (that timeframe varies, but it’s usually one to two business days). But what do you do when you don’t know how to respond to an email?

What To Say When You Don’t Know What To Say

You just opened an email from your boss asking you to take on a new project, and all you’re feeling right now is flustered and unsure. You can’t ignore the email for long (it is your boss after all, and who knows if he has read receipts?), but you don’t know what to say. So here’s what you do:

Hit reply. Your whole response will only take a minute or less, so don’t pretend you’re going to come back to it soon “when you have the time” as a way of procrastinating having to decide what to say. Because *surprise* you don’t have to decide right now!

Don’t procrastinate – reply right away.

Say something like: “Hi Jack, I received your email. Let me look at my current workload and discuss it with my team, and I will get back to you by the end of the week. Thanks!”

Or it could read: “Hi Jack, I received your email. Let me think about it and get back to you by tomorrow. Talk soon!”

Obviously, you’re going to tailor this to your specific situation, but the elements will be the same. You need to convey that 1) you read his email, 2) you’re going to consider what he’s asking of you, and 3) you’re telling him when you will give him your answer.

Conveying Your Decision

Next is the actual hard part – you have to make your decision! If you can say yes, great! That’s the easy email. But if your answer is “no,” or even “no for right now,” you might be worried about how to tactfully deliver your decision. The good news is that email allows you to craft your response so everything is perfect. Let’s look at a sample “no” and then break it down:

“Hi Jack, I hope you had a great week! After considering my current work responsibilities and discussing how this new project would affect my team and their responsibilities, I’ve decided that I can’t help out with this project, unfortunately. However, I think Sandi Johnson would be a great addition to your project. Her experience with marketing would be a definite asset. Thank you for thinking of me, and I hope you have a great weekend!”

Okay, so here are the elements of the “no” response: 1) opening pleasantries, 2) saying no within the context of your current work responsibilities, 3) suggesting someone who can help instead and why them, 4) expressing gratitude, 5) closing pleasantries. A “not at this time” response would be practically the same, you would just add in when you think you could help out.

Take your time to edit for tact and grammar.

Remember, this is email – you can take your time to edit for tact and grammar. Make sure you check your spelling and punctuation. And don’t forget to send your answer by the time or day you said you would! Keeping your word, even in little things, is part of maintaining your reputation. 

Managing the Emotions of Saying “No”

Sometimes we don’t want to respond to the email because we already know we’re going to say no and we’re worried about causing conflict or disappointing the other person. Even in this case, I would still recommend sending the initial “I got your email, and I’ll get back to you soon” response, as this will allow you time to stop freaking out and craft your response once you’re calm. 

Furthermore, saying no when we need to say no will actually help prevent future (and likely worse) disappointment and conflict. Imagine if you overpromised by saying yes when you really needed to say no and then underdelivered? Disappointment, conflict, and other unpleasant problems will inevitably ensue and you’ll be responsible for that. It’s much better for everyone involved if you say no when you need to.

It’s much better for everyone involved if you say no when you need to.

This Works for Personal Emails Too

We often receive emails we don’t want to deal with in our personal lives too, whether it’s from our child’s teacher, a group we’re involved in, or even from a friend. Any time we get an email that’s asking something of us or asking us to make a decision and we don’t know what to say, we can use the two step approach demonstrated above. (Psst, you can even do this with texting!)

The only notable difference in the way you respond is the amount of justification you give for your “no” answers. When you’re answering your boss in the negative, you might need to give more justification for your answer than if it were a personal email. Often for personal things, all we need to say is “I’m sorry, I can’t.”

Closing Thoughts

Not knowing what to say when we’re feeling the pressure of modern communication expectations is stressful. Use this two step approach to answer emails in a way that maintains clear communication with the sender and gives you time to figure out what you’re going to say.

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